People Pleasing: From Occupy Philly to SEPTA Diplomacy

Why can’t we all just get along? Because some folks—like me—feel compelled to appease

It was 2004 and a virtual stranger had moved from Chicago to Philadelphia to live with me. He’d lived in Chicago for 18 years, and knew no one in Philly. We were now sitting together in the freezing cold kitchen of our rented apartment and he was realizing the magnitude of what he’d done. I don’t remember the context, but I think he was panicking about being in Philadelphia, for god’s sake, and was yelling at me: “Stop being a doormat! Get a spine!”

It wouldn’t be the last time I heard it, and it certainly wasn’t the first. Unfortunately, I am a placater, or people pleaser, or appeaser or … well, whatever word you like best. People pleasers are altruistic and empathetic. But they’re also insecure. They want too badly to be liked, so they say what people want to hear. Their behavior can seem duplicitous because they agree with everyone.

In my case, this has caused problems in interpersonal relationships (see paragraph one) and professional relationships. Once, in fact, I called a guy after a job interview to say I’d decided to go with a different candidate. He was very sad. So sad that by the end of the conversation I said he could come back in for one more interview and I even suggested I’d probably hire him. In fact, I think I assured him that he could have my job if he wanted it.

As you might imagine, this personality makes for a great mediator but is less than robust for political activism. I just want everyone to be happy. Why yell and run around and get people angry? Let’s eat chocolate bars and dance to the disco music instead!

It seems I can only be courageous from behind the safety of a computer screen. Perhaps it’s the only way a placater can courageously effect positive change. I don’t know. Because if it was me standing in front of the tank at Tianaman Square, I’d be holding my arms out and saying, “Um, I think there’s been a misunderstanding … ”

Seeing all the petty infighting and squabbles among factions at Occupy Philly is making me extremely tense. Why can’t we all just get along? Because other people don’t need to placate. They need to change the world.

Sometimes I worry about what would have happened if I’d been alive during the Holocaust. I’m the type who would have tried to reason with the Nazis. “Listen, I know some of us can be annoying sometimes, but genocide? Don’t you think that’s a little much? Come on, let’s grab a sandwich and a pickle and have a nice laugh about lederhosen.”

People pleasers get deeply wounded if they feel misunderstood, in particular if they are accused of something they didn’t do. This causes tears at extremely inappropriate times. The other day on the trolley a woman was extremely rude to me when I asked if I could take the empty seat next to her daughter. It was the only seat left in the trolley, so it didn’t seem an outrageous request. But it infuriated her. She called me an asshole. And I wanted to say, “But I’m not an asshole. I swear. I’m a nice person who just wanted to sit down and for some reason you hate me for that.” We argued and things ended with me crying all the way home, which was extremely uncomfortable for everyone else on the trolley because a lot of people have seen Contagion now and are afraid of mucus.

In the ’70s, my people-pleasing nature would have been seen as gender-related and I would have been shoved into assertiveness training. Wouldn’t be the worst thing, I suppose. But the other day I heard my boyfriend say to my chihuahua, “Jesus, Hannah, get a spine,” and I realized I’ve turned my dog into a wimp too. Do they do assertiveness training for people and their dogs? We could both use it, as long as everyone’s nice about it. Don’t want to ruffle any feathers, after all—or fur.