Sunlit Water

June 21, 2007

No Mister Nice Guy

Filed under: Dating,Personal — by teofilo @ 9:26 pm

This Kugelmass post (via AWB) on where Nice Guys come from is very good, and the explanation he gives seems accurate, judging from my experience. There was a time, around the end of high school, when I think I was in danger of falling into Nice Guyism myself, and I think JK’s explanation explains at least part of why I didn’t. My experiences were similar to the ones he describes in some ways, but there were some crucial differences that I think made most of the difference. The biggest one is the thing about female friends; I never had any really close female friends in high school, and so I never experienced that peculiar mix of unrequited lust and blithe cluelessness that seems to define the Nice Guy attitude toward women. I always really liked girls and preferred their company to that of other guys, but I was also shy and awkward enough that I wasn’t comfortable entering into any friendships with girls unless I had a definite expectation of becoming romantically involved with them, and when it (inevitably) became apparent that they weren’t interested in me I immediately stopped hanging out with them. This was kind of dickish and immature of me, but it did prevent me from falling into that weird “but if I just keep hanging out with her and offering her emotional support maybe she’ll change her mind and go out with me” mindset that tends to characterize the Nice Guy.

I’m often puzzled in these discussions when the subject of the girls the Nice Guys ignore comes up, because up until that point I can generally understand the dynamics that people are talking about, but when it emerges that these guys are ignoring their other female friends, who are madly in love with them, I feel like I’m suddenly in an alien world. If these guys have girls who want them, I think, then why don’t they go for them? This is nothing like my experience, and it makes me a lot less sympathetic to the guys. Kugelmass mentions that one thing about Nice Guys is that they “feel lonely, but the truth is that they’re not nearly lonely enough.”  This seems about right; I was very lonely in high school, but I didn’t end up concluding it was because I was too nice.

There were other factors as well that contributed to me not becoming one of these guys, I think.  Among them was going to college and meeting some of them and thinking “holy shit, I don’t want to be like that!”  Another, strange to say, was discovering this website.  While I realize now, and suspected at the time, that it’s totally full of shit, it sets up its theory of dating as an explicit rebuttal to the Nice Guy theory of dating, and allows a guy who’s trying to figure out how these things work to see an alternative explanation that is more realistic (though, ultimately, no more accurate) than the Nice Guy one.  It’s just as depressing, though, and I wasn’t very happy trying to see the world through its terms.

In college, of course, I actually got to know a lot of girls as purely platonic friends for the first time, and it was this that I think ultimately made me realize how stupid all those “theories” about women that lonely young men come up with are.  It began to dawn on me that women all have their own perspectives, their own likes and dislikes, about men and dating and sex, and that learning to appreciate them as individuals, as people, is ultimately the only way to have any true romantic success.

Now, as all regular readers of my blog are aware, I haven’t actually found any romantic success since that time.  I consider that largely a fluke, though, and attribute it to unfortunate circumstances and my own shyness and insecurity.  It’s certainly not because I’m too nice or poor or whatever, and as long as I keep trying (which, admittedly, is not something I’ve been great about recently) I’m sure I’ll find someone eventually.

I did sign up for Nerve the other day, so that’s something.  I’m actually pretty impressed with the women in my area that are on it; there’s definitely some potential there.  We’ll see how things turn out.



  1. A number of my friends, all of them now happily married, went through the Nice Guy stage. What I found was missing from Kugelmass’ characterization, which otherwise seems to nail it, is the sense of being owed a hot girlfriend. Or even just a girlfriend. Not in a self-centered or nasty sense, but in the sense of having performed the right rituals, done the right rain dances, &c.

    They had done well in school. They were nice and kind to women. They were all responsible individuals. And none of them were having a lot of luck getting laid. But they had the Talisman of Employment and the Cloak of Respectability! This led to bitterness.

    And one of them posted, to a group of us, a nasty rant from some Nice Guy® who was consumed with this fantasy where his female friend would one day realize how wonderful he was, and then he would brutally turn her down. Because women like assholes.

    My dear friend was shouted down by me and a few other women. And he’s since grown up. But I really think that it’s the sense of being shortchanged by the universe, like it owes you women in return for paying your taxes and balancing your checkbook, that drives a lot of it.

    Comment by Cala — June 21, 2007 @ 9:57 pm |Reply

  2. I had quite a few high school friends who, in school, when none of us were dating, didn’t seem to have a problem with it, but then when they went to college and had a hard time, got suddenly extremely bitter about not having dated in high school. Sad to say, two of them ended up getting arrested for sexual assault.

    Before one of them pretty much lost his mind (genetic problems as well as whatever stimuli), he met up with some of us from school at a bar, where we watched him harass the waitress. It started with, “Hey hon, I’d like a beer, please. And your phone number.” She smiled, made nice, and brought him a beer. “So where’s that phone number? I said I’d like your phone number. What’s wrong with you, can’t you hear me speaking? I was nice! I was nice the first time! You stuck-up bitch!”

    Etc. We made him leave, but that little speech seemed like a crystallization to me of so much of the attitude the guys I met in college had. If I was nice, and you were nice, then you owe me everything else I ask for or you’re a tease and a bitch and I deserve to yell at you. Eek.

    Comment by A White Bear — June 21, 2007 @ 10:10 pm |Reply

  3. Cala, Kugelmass doesn’t so much miss that aspect as approach it from a different angle. The sense of entitlement is driven by their belief that, by rights, they should be “alpha’s”, a status which carries with it the calling card of the stereotypically hot girlfriend. To wit: “At a certain point, the Nice Guy suddenly decides that middle school is over, the Golden Boy image is attainable with practice and money, and they should get back in the ring and try to reverse the judgement of early childhood.”

    This comes back to the centrality of the male peer group in the nice guy narrative. The iconic phrase “nice guys finish last” illustrates that their grievance is not that they don’t “win” the girlfriend, but that they don’t “win,” period.

    Comment by Glenn — June 21, 2007 @ 10:31 pm |Reply

  4. Right. What Kugelmass is doing is emphasizing how much the Nice Guy attitude revolves around comparing themselves with other guys; the feeling of being owed a hot girlfriend is largely there because of their perception that that’s what “alpha males” have, so they focus their romantic pursuits on the kinds of women they think will give them the status they’re looking for.

    Comment by teofilo — June 21, 2007 @ 10:40 pm |Reply

  5. Also, am I alone in being intrigued/concerned by the obsession of the feminist blogosphere with Nice Guy’s? In a world full of brutal misogyny it seems passing strange to focus on the relatively passive sexism exhibited by most Nice Guys, even if it can occasionally erupt into more virulent forms, as noted by AWB in 2.

    My working theory is that people who identify as active feminists were likely to have been the object of an unrequited Nice Guy crush, simply because Nice Guy’s often form crushes on intellectually self-assertive girls, a pool which will be disproportionately feminist by default. I would wager that many feminists feel at least a little guilty about these pseudorelationships, even if the guilt is despite their better instincts. Thus the vilification of the Nice Guy–it absolves the feminist of self-doubt about their actions.

    This is, of course, not to dispute the merit of the Nice Guy appellation.

    Comment by Glenn — June 21, 2007 @ 10:45 pm |Reply

  6. I like the linked post, but I feel like it succeeds more in raising interesting questions than in providing completely compelling answers.

    It does convince me that I was not a “Nice Guy” (I am just a geek and a nerd), and it places appropriate emphasis on the passive aggressive elements that distinguish a Nice Guy. However, the very fact that it excludes me, and almost everyone I know, makes me suspicious. Perhaps I just know nicer Nice Guys than other people and, judging by AWB’s anecdote that may true.

    I guess that I think that the post does a good job of describing the stereotype of the Nice Guy, and of explaining how and why it is used as a pejorative but doesn’t really explain why the “Nice Guy role can seem like an attractive role to play. If the description is just that Nice Guys are people who find themselves unable, for some reason, to compete for status in the standard ways, and find really bad and inappropriate ways to express that desire/competition for status, than it defines it as a role than nobody would ever desire to fill.

    Comment by NickS — June 21, 2007 @ 11:31 pm |Reply

  7. Some additional speculation:

    The role of the Nice Guy obviously sits in some relationship to the conventional masculine and feminine gender roles (“Frat Boys” standing in here for social conventions of masculinity, I’m not sure what the equivilent term would be for femininity in the Nice Guy vocabulary). The Nice Guy sees himself as offering a critique of both masculine and feminine roles. Obviously this critique misses the mark to large degree, leading to the frustration with the Nice Guy — they they are setting themselves in opposition to a falsehood. The linked post argues that not only is the critique a failure, it is in bad faith, that the Nice Guy desires “success” in the masculine role, but doesn’t know how to get it (“Nice Guys have cannibalistic crushes on Golden Boys”).

    I would speculate that the arguments that Nice Guys make about conventional gender roles are, on some level accurate, but that the Nice Guy makes the mistake of assuming that gender roles are far more fixed than they are. The Nice Guy believes that other people, who are more successful than the Nice Guy, succeed because they play their roles more faithfully when, in fact, they succeed because they are more able to step in and out of their roles. The Nice Guy is always being a Nice Guy, whereas the frat boy is not always being a frat boy.

    But the ability to step into and out of social roles is itself, a luxury. Gender roles are not as rigidly defined as the Nice Guy believes, but they are very real, and I think that not all of the Nice Guy’s resentment is mistaken.

    All of this is pure speculation but, at the moment, it sounds right to me.

    Comment by NickS — June 21, 2007 @ 11:54 pm |Reply

  8. 5: I dunno, man, I think a lot of it may just be the Nice Guys’ tendency to show up at feminist blogs and do a lot of irritating passive-aggressive arguing.

    6: Of course it’s a role nobody would ever desire to fill. The defining characteristic of Nice Guys is frustration. They don’t want to be Nice Guys (or even nice guys); they want to be the kinds of guys who have hot girlfriends and lots of status in the eyes of other men, which they think is impossible for them to do if they’re nice. Naturally they blame women for all this.

    Comment by teofilo — June 22, 2007 @ 12:17 am |Reply

  9. 5: I think it’s not so much some guilt for having been a tease (to paraphrase) as it is that not only will the Nice Guys® show up on the blogs and berate women for taking away the Wonderful Era® in which their paycheck would mean they’d get lots of sex and liking abusive men, but that chances are pretty good that not only were they the object of a crush, but they were probably friends with a Nice Guy®. Nice Guys® are good at being friends with girls, and chances are one of the girls had a crush on him, and listened to him whine about how he never had a chance at love and listened to him blame women over and over.

    When instead, the problem is pretty much just that he was either too neurotic to ask her out, too boring (women date assholes not because they like assholes, but because they like interesting, confident people. the correlation is just a little high.), or that in the midst of whining how lonely he was, he could have had any number of dates with his girl friends.

    Except they weren’t hot enough for him.

    Comment by Cala — June 22, 2007 @ 6:49 am |Reply

  10. Whoops, a paragraph went missing there. Oh well.

    Comment by Cala — June 22, 2007 @ 6:50 am |Reply

  11. Huh. I’m starting to realize that I was a bit of a Nice Guy by these standards in high school and college — lots of male friends, little romantic success with anyone I was interested in, and bitter and cranky about it. (Bitter crankiness that I can still summon at will when discussions of these things pop up, although I think I mostly direct the bitterness at various versions of the claim that women don’t have this sort of problem.)

    I don’t think I was an asshole about it, which is required for the full Nice Guy status, but the description is feeling uncomfortably familiar.

    Comment by LizardBreath — June 22, 2007 @ 8:04 am |Reply

  12. I agree with Cala, Glenn. IME, Nice Guys are surrounded by loving female friends who listen to them go on and on about how unloved they are. The female friends develop their own unrequited crushes, while the Nice Guy looks at them and says, “God, I’m just so in love with Perfect Girl and she won’t even look at me! If only PG were more like you!” But it would never occur to him to date someone he actually already respects.

    Comment by A White Bear — June 22, 2007 @ 9:38 am |Reply

  13. Of course it’s a role nobody would ever desire to fill. The defining characteristic of Nice Guys is frustration.

    Okay, I’m fine with a description that is essentially, “here is a collection of mistakes that people make, that occur in combination frequently enough to be given a name.” That’s a useful description. It makes me unsure of whether I know anyone who fit that description, but my social circle was small.

    Comment by NickS — June 22, 2007 @ 9:59 am |Reply

  14. This discussion is weird for me because I’ve never given much thought to the phenomenon of the Nice Guy. Before reading the post over at Kugelmass’s, I wouldn’t have understood the difference between a Nice Guy and a nice guy.

    It makes me wonder how I dodged Nice Guy-hood. Or, rather, it makes me wonder how much time I spent being a Nice Guy without realizing it, and how I got out of it.

    Comment by mrh — June 22, 2007 @ 10:02 am |Reply

  15. I’ll chime in to agree that feminists talk about the Nice Guy phenomenon because NGs inject themselves in to the conversation regularly. A drive-by troll is just a drive-by. But a comments section can get utterly ruined if a moderator isn’t savvy enough to recognize and redirect, reframe, or otherwise shut down a thread that is being subtly but unrelentingly taken over by a NG.

    I learned to recognize this behavior online because I’m lucky enough that my close social circle has never included it. I haven’t even observed it very often in RL, although I completely second Cala’s point that one element of it seems to be a fixation that the world owes them not just intimacy and relationship, but a conventionally-very-attractive woman.

    Comment by Witt — June 22, 2007 @ 9:32 pm |Reply

  16. Thinking about it a bit more, I’d say another characteristic of the Nice Guy® is that he’s probably fairly intelligent. He’s not just someone who lost out in high school to the Golden Boys, but someone smart enough to analyze the situation. That’s what this Nice Guy® does, after all. If he wants to get good grades, he studies. If he wants to get a promotion at work, he works hard. Rewards come from hard work.

    So, you work hard at making yourself into what you think women like: someone who has can be a good provider, who is nice and considerate and a good listener, and maybe even someone who’s taken the time to work out. The odd thing is that the Nice Guy® isn’t wholly wrong about what sorts of things might be attractive to women. And the reason, I think, so many nice guys want to defend the Nice Guys® is that if the story stops here, they sound exactly the same.

    The difference is that the Nice Guy® seems to think that women are handed out like merit badges or As. So when they’ve done all they should, and the women don’t show, they go back to the drawing board. And they see that some women are dating men who are assholes. In the Nice Guy’s® mind, he’s become just as Golden as the asshole. The only difference that he can see is that the Golden boy is an asshole.

    Now he’s bitter. That’s what those bitches wanted?

    (Two things I think that separate the nice guy from the Nice Guy®. Having romantic success seems to cure Nice Guy®, because he gets some confidence. And the nice guy probably doesn’t think of women as something that happens when you follow a list of rules.

    Comment by Cala — June 23, 2007 @ 9:01 am |Reply

  17. AWB, your story about the waitress sounds uncannily like the stories that the street harassers tell (here and also here).

    On Nice Guys themselves, I think Cala pretty much has it right.

    Comment by Matt W — June 23, 2007 @ 2:25 pm |Reply

  18. Following this conversation around from Joe’s to AWB’s to teo’s, I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t some fundamental disconnect between actual “nice guys” and online Nice Guys. In other words, the Nice Guys who plague Feministe aren’t like the “nice guys” who harass waitresses. The latter are assholes, pure and simple; the former, well, I think are more complicated. In my experience, they’re married and/or in committed relationships with strong, intelligent women. They only become Nice Guys when they seem themselves implicated in some feminist critique, and they try to rationalize their behavior on the basis of its outcome — their relationship with a strong, intelligent woman who never would’ve put up with them if they believed (consciously or otherwise) what’s being imputed.

    Comment by SEK — June 23, 2007 @ 3:15 pm |Reply

  19. A really nice thread, with interesting responses. Most of us have felt some of this, so identify up to a point, before as was said, it goes off the rails. My equivalent for LB’s residual crankiness is about the concept of “confidence.” But Cala’s point about men who are interesting overlapping assholes to some extent is a good one, paired with Kugelmass’s insight that NGs are often followers, whose motives come from comparisons of themselves with other men, and are not as interesting as they think they are. For some people the lack of “confidence” is a temporary condition, not merely shyness but the subtlety to know enough, to imagine enough, not to be confident where a more obtuse person would be. And there’s no harm in realizing that many women aren’t very discerning either, and respond to what is simple and overt. Or they may choose that for clarity, for a simpler relation at least to start with.

    I also like SEK’s point about the defensiveness, more like LB’s and my residual crankiness, in a sense of guys who would seem to have solved this problem personally, going on about it at sights like Feministe. That stuff is very tedious, even if you sometimes feel there’s a point in there somewhere.

    Comment by I don't pay — June 23, 2007 @ 6:58 pm |Reply

  20. And there’s no harm in realizing that many women aren’t very discerning either, and respond to what is simple and overt.

    And we’re muddling through learning how to deal with the opposite sex on our own. But I wouldn’t characterize it as not being discerning.

    There’s a pretty strong cultural presumption that men chase and women are chased, and the corollary to that is that if the man isn’t chasing, he’s obviously not interested. Pretty obviously false once you’ve actually observed actual men, but still pretty powerful. So the nice guy (or the Nice Guy®) is too shy (maybe even because he wants to be respectful of women), while his girl friends flirt, get dressed up, ask his opinions on things, to make a move. They conclude, falsely, but not unreasonably, if he’s hanging around them sharing beers and cigarettes and offering opinions on what they’re deciding to wear, and he isn’t showing typical signs of interest, he’s just not interested in them. And Nice Guys® underestimate, I think, how obvious they’re being. None of us want to get rejected, either, because it sucks, so no one ends up taking the risk.

    Golden Boy/the asshole of the lament, however, turns on the charm. He compliments her, makes her feel sexy, notices all the things that Nice Guy® noticed but didn’t mention. He’s probably very good at looking very interested in her thoughts. He’s also an asshole, but he probably doesn’t lead off with those qualities.

    Comment by Cala — June 23, 2007 @ 9:51 pm |Reply

  21. Some really interesting thoughts here. I’m reading this book on listening/communication and one of the points the author makes is that sometimes poor listening starts with the speaker. A guy who has already concluded that his wife isn’t interested in hearing about his day comes home and grudgingly tells her a bit in a tone and with an attitude that assumes her lack of interest. And she responds accordingly. It’s not a conscious dynamice, but real nonetheless

    Cala’s last comment above seemed to invoke the same idea. These Nice Guys assume woman aren’t going to be attracted to them and they interact in a way that assumes the lack of interest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the woman is resented for ling up to the projection the Nice Guy cast upon her.

    Comment by Di Kotimy — June 25, 2007 @ 1:00 pm |Reply

  22. JK’s analysis is striking for locating the seeds of the NG pre-puberty, something that doesn’t seem to have been remarked on in the discussion here, which I’m just now reading. I, uh, have nothing more of substance to contribute.

    Comment by ben wolfson — June 25, 2007 @ 5:33 pm |Reply

  23. I’ve been reading this discussion with tremendous interest; I’ve refrained from commenting so far partly because of offline business, but mostly because the interpretations of my post were very very good, and the new thoughts and pieces of speculation were fascinating. teofilo, cheers! Cala, I can’t believe you don’t have a blog, given the quality of your comments here.

    I liked NickS’s comment that Nice Guys feel stuck in their roles, and this fixity creates problems that other guys wouldn’t necessarily have. Imitative personalities, and people working with abstractions — Nice Guys tend to be both — end up being rigid and literal. By abstractions, I mean thinking of men and women in the abstract, rather than thinking of them as individuals. Teofilo makes this point very well in the post.

    As for NickS’s question about why Nice Guys act the way they do — I think most of them answer this question in revealing ways. Basically, they became Nice Guys because they wanted to be different from the assholes. This is their way of doing women a favor. However, the point is really to be the same as the assholes — sexually “successful.”

    My post was an occasion for some self-searching, and I’m happy to see it used that way. At the same time, there are lots of reasons why people with these experiences might not turn into Nice Guys. For example, not everybody experiences loneliness and romantic need to the same degree, or in the same way. In response to mrh, I would say: given the amount of generalization and simplification required to write the post at all, there’s no need for anyone, male or female, to fit themselves into it.

    I don’t pay, I like and share your crankiness about the term “confidence,” as I mentioned in the original post. I’m certain that women aren’t more or less discerning than men, and I think we can assume many like other ways of communicating besides simple, overt speech. Most flirting is neither simple nor overt; it is, however, clear and not hypocritical.

    I wouldn’t describe the problem here as an excess of thought producing lack of confidence, i.e. “conscience makes cowards of us all.” I’m sure we can all think of people who are both very thoughtful, and very arrogant because of it, even if (perhaps especially if) they’re lonely. Rather, a lack of confidence produces dithering, and that’s rationalized as “analysis.”

    In response to SEK — The kind of person AWB described harassing a waitress is very confused about the line between confidence and harassment, because that line is, in fact, blurry in American society (though no reasonable person would have trouble construing what he did as harassment). His behavior wasn’t acceptable; I think it’s helpful to understand how it happens, rather than just calling him an asshole — and notwithstanding the fact that we have to decide about hanging out with people like that, and usually decide against it.

    Sites like Feministe spend time on Nice Guys because they deal with them over and over in the comment threads, and also for some of the personal reasons listed above. It’s not really disproportionate; it seems disproportionate because it can put the reader on the defensive.

    It’s possible that you’re right about the demographics of Nice Guys online. I’m certain that you’re right about some of them. However, that leaves open only two possibilities. Either the Nice Guy posts are unfair, and provoke people who are living well-adjusted lives into blustery self-defense, or the “Nice Guy” effect is a demonstration of the fact that people’s (not really very feminist) values are at odds with their (decently egalitarian) lifestyle — at which point we have to wonder why, and that brings us back to my starting point for these reflections, the Nice Guy disconnect between fantasy and “theory” on the one hand, and reality on the other.

    One last thought. I hate the Ladder Theory (it was also forwarded to me, one day several years ago), and I love how you (teofilo) put it: it doesn’t make a believer very happy. It is a perfect illustration of Nice Guy thinking. The biggest problem with it is its blatant misogyny, but only slightly less important is that, like The Rules and various other texts, it is way out of date. The dynamics that, at any point in time, would have been horrible exaggerations, are now rarer than condors, having been replaced by simulation and fantasy — sexual capitalism via Baudrillard. About which, more in the follow-up.

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass — June 25, 2007 @ 10:32 pm |Reply

  24. I think the attraction of feminist blogs to Nice Guys is pretty obvious: the Nice Guy thinks that men (not he himself, of course, but other men) are assholes, and the feminists’ anger about things like date rape and media images of women is validation of his worldview. He would NEVER pressure a woman to have sex, and he thinks size 8 women can be hot! He is a nice guy!

    Comment by L. — June 25, 2007 @ 11:07 pm |Reply

  25. to s/b for

    Comment by L. — June 25, 2007 @ 11:08 pm |Reply

  26. “Cala, I can’t believe you don’t have a blog, given the quality of your comments here.”

    “quality” s/b “volume” hehe.

    Comment by Cala — June 26, 2007 @ 8:08 am |Reply

  27. I think the rift between Nice Guys and feminists may be fueled by this self-help phenomenon I recently discovered at another blog. These trolling Nice Guys may be devotes of Dr. Robert Glover. Ive recently encounterd some.The forums at this site are down right frightening.

    This quote from a newspaper review says Dr. Robert Glover thinks that hippies and feminists are responsible for the culture that incubates the charachter defects of Nice Guys. Recovery entails learning to stand up to them.

    **His list of causes responsible for creating Nice Guys — inclusive enough to rile nearly every interest — includes absent fathers, the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era, the sexual revolution, an educational system that he claims is “dominated by women” and “women’s liberation and feminism.”**

    Comment by snow66 — October 22, 2007 @ 8:06 pm |Reply

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