Why Being Nice is Overrated: And How to Avoid Nice People


The Coffee Date

I was in a cafe. My companion, a young woman with the verbal forte of a passionate women's rights advocate. Women's issues were in fact the hot topic of the moment, and there was considerable indignation over the epidemic of catcalling, references to facebook posts, and lament over how so very many people just didn't 'get it'.

Then something interesting happened.

My companion's eyes were drawn towards someone entering the cafe. Though we'd been in mid conversation her attention was obviously no longer with us. I stopped and glanced at the subject of her attention. It was a university-aged woman, and from her devout attention I thought maybe my companion knew her. As the young woman walked past us to the cafe counter my companion- without shifting her gaze (and without regard for being only mere feet away)- remarked:

"UGH, I absolutely HATE those shorts she's wearing. I mean, really..."

Next, some reference to the length of the shorts (apparently, too short), and the weight of an expectation to remark in kind on the clothing of a woman I had no opinion of whatsoever. Instead, I said 'So anyway...' moving the topic in another direction, aware that some part of her attention was still on that young woman at the counter and the length of her shorts.

The False Paradox: Nice people don't do bad things. 

The problem with assigning labels is that none of us are only, or entirely one thing. 'Nice' people do awful things (don't believe me? Read Psychologists Find that Nice People Are More Likely to Hurt You).  

I could have assumed, from a number of cues, that my coffee companion cared so much about the empowerment of women she couldn't possibly be nasty to them (I mean, how can those things reasonably coexist?). But even in the brief space of a few moments her actions offered a contradictory image. I could have assumed from her catty comment that she really was so nasty she couldn't possibly genuinely care about women's issues. The hard truth is actually both.

I've spoken at length about living in an abusive relationship and one of the things, to this day, that resounds with me is how many people who knew my former partner say 'he seemed like such a happy-go-lucky guy'. It's always had the eerie echo of what we say when we find out the quiet neighbour next door's been keeping human remains in the freezer. He seemed like such a nice guy...
People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning- Gavin DeBecker
As a Specialist in security issues, DeBecker's seen the dire consequences of assuming that nice behaviour negates any possible wrong doing. It's not cynical to question niceness, because nice is a behaviour, not a trait.  It's something we can sometimes be, but never all we are. When we classify a person by a single behaviour, painting their whole picture with one colour, we self select out of acknowledging their complexity; but, choosing colour blindness does not erase the other hues. 

Still... facing the contradictory behaviours of my coffee companion I wondered: how could someone so seemingly passionate about women's empowerment almost simultaneously be so disrespectful to women? How could I reconcile this?

madonna I'm ambitious...

Why Being Nice is Overrated

My coffee date question is answered daily through my daughters. It's mind bending how often my girls are told to BE nice. Apparently, it's supposed to be one of their top two priorities

#1 Be Pretty and #2 Be Nice 

The thing is... my girls are not nice. Don't get me wrong they can be- but man- they are SO. Much. More. They are smart, but sometimes do stupid things. They are stubborn, and still they compromise. They are articulate, yet sometimes say things that make no sense whatsoever. No one behaviour rules out it's opposite, or articulates fully who they are. Even their most dominant traits evolve with every new interaction, experience and change.

Like my girls, I've been told I'm nice- that that's an important thing for me to be- but I'll tell you from personal (if perhaps not entirely objective) experience, I'm not. While I'm capable of being nice, it's different from believing I am nice. Admittedly, this has likely gotten me called all kinds of other things (which I probably am too, in part); however:
-Nice doesn't build my business.
-Nice doesn't make me a better parent.
-Nice doesn't improve my health.
-Nice doesn't help me form authentic relationships, 
  ...make a meaningful contribution to my community or 
    ...make the world a better place.

Being nice is really, really low on my list of 'Important Things to Be'. We are all made up of so many things, and most of them are more interesting, more exciting, more valuable and more real than nice. 

In short: being nice is overrated. 

How to Avoid Nice People 

  • Be Aware: People are clever. We learn to use behaviours that achieve what we want. It's a mark of intelligence, and neither inherently good or bad. When I hear 'he's a nice guy' I don't automatically file that person under Nice; instead I think, 'this guy's obviously learned being nice achieves something- I'll pay attention to what that might be'. Maybe it's something entirely benevolent, but wouldn't it be better to know-either way- than not?

  • Embrace Accountability: Consider a parent saying "I have never been anything but a GOOD parent". Well, as a mother I can tell you: at times we're not all good. Sometimes we are less than what we can be, we are capable of causing hurt and complexes and inadequacies, and we make mistakes. But when we acknowledge our fallibility, embrace our mistakes and work to be our best selves we stand the best chance of actually being good mothers. It's what happens when we accept accountability.

  • Get Assertive: What if I stopped my coffee companion dead in her tracks and called out her behaviour as inappropriate and mean, or asked her if insulting a woman for what she's wearing is any better than catcalling? It's all too easy to get passively sucked into someone else's behaviour out of love, friendship, pressure or discomfort but our behaviour is our choice, and that's powerful. Choosing behaviour that protects us (which may mean staying away entirely) while asserting our values isn't always easy, but- like anything- gets easier with practice.

Ever met a 'nice' person who turned out to be not so nice?  Tweet: I've met 'nice' people who turned out to be not so nice @janieeden!