A piece on MPR today from Story Corps caught my attention. A16-year old son asked his mom what she wished for him. She said wished for her son to be a good person, not a nice person. “That’s not a deep quality to me. Niceness is mediocrity,” she said.
Niceness is mediocrity. That got me thinking and so here we are on the blog.
We liken the synonyms pleasant, agreeable, and satisfactory to the concept of being nice. We expect those around us to be pleasant to keep the status quo; to be agreeable and not upset the balance of power; to satisfy needs and keep the peace. There’s a cultural expectation of niceness. We call it by different names like customer service and friendliness and being happy. We equate nice with being a team player, being polite, and having good manners.
Digging a bit deeper than the dictionary, I took a little typing trip to the etymology lexicon. I love the Latin roots of words–they seem to give a deeper meaning to our modern usage. In the case of the word nice, it’s derived from the Latin word nescius which means “ignorant, unaware and literally not-knowing”. Originally coined in the 14th century, it was a term for “foolish” or “silly”.
Historically, it seems there was a bit of a dark side to the concept of nice. Does that hold true today? I argue in the affirmative. Being nice can be interpreted as giving consent when you really want to say no. Nice is confirmed in the adage “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Nice covers all manner of sins: failing to give constructive criticism when needed; protecting oneself from having a difficult conversation; and fixing the inadequate work of another instead of providing them an opportunity to learn from their flops. Projects get moved forward that should not, team members are supported when they should be corrected, and toxic friendships stay intact when they should be terminated.
A quote from professor, activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, caught my ear a few months back. David Brooks, New York Times columnist quoted Wiesel in his speech at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
The rest of the quote reads,
“The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Wiesel’s point was made from a stance of promoting activism, saying something even when it is unpopular, even when you may be criticized and harmed (think: Holocaust). Indifference is dangerous; apathy is destructive.
I offer this for your consideration: Is the opposite of nice not mean, but rather, indifference?
What price do we pay by being nice instead of being honest? By looking away and keeping our mouth shut when doing the harder thing, the honest thing, the risky thing, is of greater importance? What price to we pay by suffocating honesty and substituting nice?
We pay by shutting down anger, becoming hard with sharp edges.
We pay by stuffing our resentment, rotting us from the inside out.
We pay by shutting down sadness, becoming numb and insensitive.
We pay by becoming emotionally dishonest, with ourselves and others.
We pay by shutting down our own voice, becoming distrustful of our own inner voice, of what we know to be true. If we don’t use our voice, we lose it.
We pay with our actions that betray our own boundaries. Giving too much away. Making others happy instead of responding to our own needs. Communicating to the world that the happiness of others is more important than our own.
Nice is easy.
Nice is shallow.
Nice is fake.
Anyone can slap a fake grin on their face and say words that are polite and safe—nice, if you will. Those words lull the recipient into a false sense of authenticity on the part of the speaker. Trust is formed, as thin as the receding spring ice from a Minnesota lake. Nice is fleeting, a transitory existence over time. Nice becomes a forced behavior, unable to be sustained, eventually ruptured.
I’ll take honesty over nice everyday and twice on Sunday.
Honesty takes courage and a commitment to maintaining your own well-being. Being honest is the crux of a good person–a deep quality, the mother’s wish for her son. Deep qualities take longer to develop, but exist at a more profound, richer level of being. A dedicated practice of honesty tempered with kindness–both within one’s self and among others–can create a deep well of strength from which to draw.
And so, my wish for you is more profound than simply “be nice.”
Be anything but nice.