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On Being Likeable

I have spent a chunk of my life attempting to be likeable.  I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but in general, I try to be helpful and kind and all those other positive adjectives that we apply to “nice” people.  Being liked seems like a good thing to be.  Or, at the very least, the inverse seems like a bad thing to be: not liked.

No one wants to be the cauliflower*.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a speech a few weeks ago that resonated with me.  She states:

I think that what our society teaches young girls … is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable.

You can actually see the whole thing here.  She addresses the girl writers around the 3:30 mark.

It’s a powerful statement: “Forget about likeability.”

What would you do if you stopped worrying about how it would be received?  I don’t mean that people should act like a dick, but I think about all the times I’ve held my tongue because I’ve been scared that someone would laugh at my ideas or that it was out of place for me to suggest one of my ideas.  (Who was I to actually have opinions?  And thoughts?  And think it was okay to express them?)

Or the times I’ve apologized when there was nothing to apologize for — think about how many times you begin a sentence with “I’m sorry but” when you haven’t done anything wrong.  (“I’m sorry, but do you know what time the meeting begins?”)

There was something very freeing about my thirties and leaving the stage of life when you care about popularity.  Maybe that is why it is all the more painful when I find myself caring about likeability.  I know better.  I know it doesn’t matter.  And yet I still twist and turn myself into more likable shapes, as Adichie would say.

I don’t know what the answer is.  I worry about sending the message to girls not to strive for likeability because will they get the nuance of that statement and not go off in a negative direction?  Perhaps it is more helpful to let girls know that their natural state of being is likeable.  As is.  Maybe not to everyone, but at the very least, to someone.

It’s about being okay with the someone vs. the everyone.

* Some may disagree whether cauliflower is an unliked vegetable.  Feel free to substitute in your own unliked vegetable here.  Crap, see — that’s how concerned I am with being likeable!  I’m worried about offending cauliflower lovers.


1 Middle Girl { 06.23.15 at 8:01 am }


There is a woman in my office who is always apologizing. Bugs the beets out of me. I can’t get more into it now, have to get to work. But, good topic.

2 J { 06.23.15 at 8:29 am }

I totally agree, on the likability front. There is definitely something to be said for finding balance among trying to make everyone happy, making yourself happy, and being a bit of an @$$hole.

However, have you tried roasted cauliflower? Roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes at 350 caramelizes the edges just a bit. I find it delectable, particularly in early summer if you can find the purple and yellow varieties at the Farmer’s Market…

3 MARY { 06.23.15 at 9:29 am }

If you think your 30’s were freeing, 50 is awesome! One of my favorite saying is “What you think about me is none of my business.”

4 Ana { 06.23.15 at 9:40 am }


(I love cauliflower, but I’m not the least bit offended that you don’t)

This is something I’m getting better at over the decades—not trying so hard to be—as my high school friends used to call me—“agreeable”. On the one hand, though, isn’t “agreeable” a good thing? Flexible, accommodating—those all sound like positive qualities. On the other hand, I think agreeable meant “doormat”. Never having any strong opinions. Blech.
I also say “I’m sorry” a lot. I need to stop apologizing for being.

5 jodifur { 06.23.15 at 9:56 am }

OMG-THIS! It took me years to get over, “why doesn’t she like me?” Until I realized…you know what, I don’t really LIKE HER!

6 Amy Elaine { 06.23.15 at 10:26 am }

Oh my goodness, yes. There is an amazingly hilarious Amy Schumer sketch about this – there are a panel of powerful women on a stage, and all they can say is “sorry” about everything.

7 Working mom of 2 { 06.23.15 at 10:29 am }

Yes, beets. Cauliflower is yummy.

Sadly this is still true in the workplace. Lean In covered this somewhat. Assert yourself and you’re an unlikeable bitch.

8 Cristy { 06.23.15 at 11:27 am }

*Zucchini is mine. Can’t seem to find a way to cook it that doesn’t make me gag.

I completely agree that women are far more prone to this than man. But to some degree we all suffer from likeability. On one hand, this can had a positive role with reinforcing socially acceptable behavior. But it can also have the opposite as you pointed out very nicely. I too struggle with finding middle ground. When I twist too much, I find I’m more likely to snap in general.

9 deathstar { 06.23.15 at 11:27 am }

Oh, yeah. The second you speak up and assert yourself, you run the risk of being “unlikeable” or “difficult”. I have spent decades waiting to be picked as opposed to being the one who does the picking. And I ended up with crap boyfriends because I didn’t want to be a “bitch”. My nieces went off on Oprah once because they learned she wasn’t “nice”. And I said, who the F*** cares, she’s an Black woman who has defied the odds and built an empire and a network, impacted millions of people, made a gazillion dollars, who the f*** cares if she’s NICE.

10 SRB { 06.23.15 at 12:17 pm }

I can relate to this and it’s been something I have been thinking about a lot for the last 2-3 years. Especially with blogging, to be honest. I REALLY wanted everyone to like me and tied myself up in knots over it. I care a lot less about that now, which simply means that I care less what others think of me and more what *I* think of me. After losing two friendships for stupid reasons, I refocussed on people who truly care about me for who I really am (and who I trusted to show them that). So, a double-edged sword I guess. But yeah… stand up for yourself and you’re a bitch. Awesome.

11 Brid { 06.23.15 at 12:23 pm }

I think these last two posts are quite closely related. In general, society is becoming pretty judgmental and it makes it quite difficult to move. I’m so pragmatic that I almost don’t have any opinions anymore; worrying about offending some one is nearly paralysing because no matter what one does or opines, someone will likely have an issue with it… and if you think the opposite on the same topic, some one else will tear you down. I read two things lately about two different celebrities that sort of fit in here. The first one was some article saying that Molly Simms broke the first parenting rule by commenting that her babies are calm, don’t cry, and sleep well. The second was about a woman who posted a sweet picture of her baby breastfeeding on the beach. Apparently complaints came in for both situations suggesting these women shouldn’t put these things out there because some babies don’t sleep or breastfeed easily, thereby making the mothers of those babies feel inadequate. Both of these cases are instances of someone expecting another to negate or truncate their own experiences because it might make someone feel bad. I just don’t get this anymore… It seems like a societal call to make everyone be nice by being rotten.
Two other short comments:
Grate zucchini into sauces, pastas, taco salads, etc… I add it to anything in which I’m using ground meat.
And not that anyone needs to eat cauliflower, but a great way to prepare it is to cut the stalks off, chuck the florets into the food processor and pulse chop them till they are the consistency of couscous… In a pan, season the cauliflower as you would couscous or quinoa, and brown it all to your liking.
Sorry this is so long 😉

12 nonsequiturchica { 06.23.15 at 12:34 pm }

This reminds me of an Amy Shumer sketch (I think from this season). There are three accomplished, smart women on stage being interviewed by a man. Everything that they do- whether they interrupt someone by accident, spill water, etc. they apologize. It’s hilarious and totally on-point.

13 Charlotte { 06.23.15 at 2:20 pm }

My husband thinks it’s a huge flaw of mine, but I totally and honestly don’t give a fuck what people think of me. It really started in middle school, probably as my way to cope with all the b.s. that happens to girls at that age. I will say it has served me well, in that I haven’t wasted energy trying to be something I’m not or trying to fit in with people, or fit into any sort of group. Idk, it’s one of the things I am most proud of myself for, and one of the things I love most about myself.

14 Valery Valentina { 06.23.15 at 3:27 pm }

I am glad you explained a bit about the cauliflower, I had no idea it was an unliked vegetable.
Unliked, unloved, it took me almost 15 years (and as many boyfriends) to realise that him liking me was only part, but that it would be both more honest and practical/enjoyable if I liked him back…
(argh, it seems so trivial writing it down now I almost want to go anon 😉

15 torthuil { 06.23.15 at 3:41 pm }

I reserve “sorry” for when I might have actually done or said something to offend someone. I never say “sorry” for disagreeing (because I’m not sorry for disagreeing) and I certainly don’t expect people to be sorry for disagreeing with me (as long as they are reasonably polite). I don’t think I worry much about being likable, but I do worry about people disliking me (as in, I don’t mind if they’re indifferent but I don’t want to be specifically disliked). Anyway, I think ideally if we all worried more about being decent, kind moral human beings and less about being liked the world would be a better place. But our society can also be pretty shallow and reward people for being likable, so I don’t think that pressure will go away any time soon.

16 Kimberly { 06.23.15 at 3:47 pm }

I think there is a big difference between being liked and being nice and that people tend to confuse and combine the two. There is nothing wrong with being nice to people. Open doors, say please and thank you, being respectful to those around you. But being liked is something different. Being liked or striving to please others and your own expense and is something you do to try to change others opinions on you.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had friends and close family treat me like crap. Being rude, intentionally calling me out on things I haven’t done, claiming things that are untrue. I’m learning that I don’t need to be liked and that sometimes to be honest with myself, I have to do and say things that I may not want to say but they have to be said. In the past, I’ve let them say things and not do anything so that I was still liked and that I was nice. But I’m learning that self worth is a big part of all of this and I have to speak up for myself when I am being treated poorly. I’ve had to speak to two people in particular in the past couple of weeks, and I could’ve screamed or treated them badly, but instead I told them honestly what was bugging me, how they hurt me and what I find wrong with it. I’m still being respectful to those people but I’m also protecting myself. At that moment, they certainly didn’t like me and I wasn’t aiming for their positive reinforcement on my actions.

Clearly, I have a lot of thoughts on this and I may need to write my own thoughts in its own post.

17 Sharon { 06.23.15 at 5:43 pm }

I am like Charlotte (commenter #13, above): don’t know how admirable it is, but with the exception of a select group of people close to me, for the most part, I don’t care whether people like me. Really. For me, this is an outgrowth of having gone through a hellish social situation in middle school where I was ostracized.

I *do* care about my professional reputation — because, in my field, it’s almost a job requirement — and the things that go along with that, but whether or not people like is not something over which I ever lose a wink of sleep. And I almost never apologize unless I am (1) genuinely in the wrong, and (2) really sorry.

I sometimes think I’d be better off if I cared more about what others think, but “I yam what I yam.”

18 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.23.15 at 8:27 pm }

I took an assertiveness class once as a new adult. I still remember the phrase the teacher drilled into us:

“I have a right to be free of the goodwill of others.”

Which is super helpful for girls like me, but not for all girls (or boys). Some need to care MORE what others think and how our words/actions affect others. Not for popularity, but for the empathy piece you addressed 2 posts ago.

19 Queenie { 06.23.15 at 9:07 pm }

I am with Charlotte and Sharon. I try my best to be the kind of person I want to be, and what other people think just isn’t important. Like Sharon, I do think sometimes I’d be better off if I cared more.

I’ve thought a lot about why I feel this way. In part, it probably is middle school mean girl related. But I also grew up in a rural area and was a very heavy reader. I read a lot of classic stuff and pretty much zero chick lit. A lot of the fiction I read featured male characters, and I think I really internalized how those characters approached the world. I didn’t grow up believing that I had to be agreeable. I grew up believing that I had a voice and should use it. And so here I am.

20 illustr8d { 06.23.15 at 10:52 pm }

I never thought that I cared a fig for any of it. I was (and still am) a kind person. And the world responded very kindly. For the most part. And then I went through something that changed my looks. It’s fixable and probably not what is springing to your mind. But for all intents and purposes, the way I look now screams that I am of no importance, that I do not matter. And people have done everything from ignore me, scream at me, spit on me. (It’s still amazes me that that happened.) The truth is, this has gutted me.

So do I want to be likeable or care about it? I am not given a chance to be likeable or to be unlikeable. That appears to be over, at least for the last several years, and we’ll see what happens in the future. I have given up the idea of having friends in person or dating or any of that.

So it doesn’t matter if I’m likeable any longer. And that is hard. And freeing. Both. But mostly hard. (Ironically, I feel as though I should apologize for this comment.)

21 Mali { 06.24.15 at 12:25 am }

This is so completely a women’s issue! In business, I see time and again that women who speak up for themselves are categorised as being aggressive and confrontational, when all they do is behave exactly like the men. Yet if we’re retiring and nice, then we are ignored. Argh!

I’ve been a victim of this all my life. I still want to be liked and nice, but I no longer take it personally if I’m not liked, and I certainly won’t compromise my principles or who I am to ensure I am liked. The revelation of my 40s (though perhaps too it was a result of being on the margins of society as a childless woman) and now 50s is that I care about this less and less.

Still, today I was walking down my path thinking about something I wanted to confront my neighbour about, and she appeared in front of me. And I said nothing! My name is Mali and I’m a wimp.

22 Jamie { 06.24.15 at 12:28 am }

*Agree on cauliflower. Absolutely no offense taken. 😉

My favorite part of your post… “Perhaps it is more helpful to let girls know that their natural state of being * is * likeable.”

23 lisa { 06.24.15 at 11:38 pm }

I agree with Mali about it being a womens issue and it goes both ways. I’ve spent the last 25 years working in the male dominated IT field and I communicate directly as my peers do. This has sometimes caused issues with other women, who see the communication style as too aggressive coming from me, but fine from the rest of the team.

24 Bronwyn Joy { 07.01.15 at 8:00 am }

You kill me with the cauliflower footnote.

Well done on nine years! (I’m catching up a bit here, aren’t I?) I think sometimes you can make a better assessment by focussing on the type, rather than the number of people who don’t like you.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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