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Putting It On Nice

Ice Sorry for the silent week, folks, but I've been doing a lot of thinking this past week.  Some of my interactions, conversations, and observations have all been culminating around one single adjective:  NICE.

I'm finding that "nice" is one of those two-edged swords.  Here in central Iowa, we have our fair share of people who have turned passive-aggression into a lifestyle (some might argue, a food group).  For them, being "nice" is only a face thing, and the hug is meant as a vehicle to stab someone else in the back.

My wife often will use "nice" as a first defense for an acquaintance who might be lacking in competence or other social skills.  She's always pointing out to me, "Yeah, but they're nice."  My inside voice almost always retorts with the old line, "...and Hell will be filled with 'nice' people."

The kicker was Peggy Noonan's article in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday.  The entire essay was on being nice.  She talked about how we need to listen to grandmotherly wisdom about what is and is not nice.  Ms. Noonan talked about how we need to be more conscious of what makes people wince.  When people wince; somebody is not being nice.  Her summary was nothing short of eloquent brilliance:

"As long as political correctness reigns, the more antic among us will try to break out with great streams of Tourette's-like forbidden words and ideas.  We should forbid less and demand more.  We should exert less pressure from without and encourage more discipline from within.  We should ask people to be dignified, hope they'll be generous, expect them to be fair.  When they're not, we should correct them.  But we shouldn't beat them to a pulp.  Because that's not nice."

I've been writing on Office-Politics.com for two months now.  The owner and founder of the site, Franke James, pointed out to me that the writers to the site carry a common theme of moral justice and fairness.  Their antagonists, more often than not, are accused of being mean, or at a minimum of not being nice, not playing fair, or not caring about anybody but themselves.  Maybe that's it.  Maybe there's an inverse correlation between being apathetic and being nice.

Meanpeoplesuck_1I'm not sure what the answer is.  However, as I was driving home from class tonight, I noticed a bumper sticker I've seen a million times before:


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Tom Haskins

Great issue, Tim! Several years ago a friend and I were getting feedback that we were "too nice". Now we laugh when we taunt each other with "what's wrong with being nice?" We realized that being nice is manipulation. When people are being nice to me, they are controlling the conversation away from anything to do with me. Nice is not relating. Another friend calls being nice "pseudo relating". Nice lacks consideration, caring, compassion and connection. When someone is being nice to me, they don't get what I want, what I care about, where I'm coming from or what I'm working toward. There is no way they can support me, encourage me or validate me when they are that clueless about me.

Nice is a mask to hide vengeance, hostility and other agendas. As you say, it's passive aggressive and a road to Hell. It's superficially better than being being blatantly mean, but nice has more in common with meanness than with compassion. Nice is "people pleasing" and enmeshed with what other people think. Being nice depends on others for structure, guidelines and approval.

Being caring comes from within. Peggy Noonan encourages us to cultivate more inner discipline. Political correctness is external structure to correct for a lack of conscience, moral sensitivity and caring. So it works to put "being nice on ice" and get what motivates other people to be nice, mean or genuinely caring.


What do you think we should have done during the office politics game last week? That one bothered me - how to point out that one person's sense of humor is another's manipulation and insincerity?

Rising above vs. being nice - I suppose the key element is the ethical intent to be honest and open without having to get caught up in an argument that may not move toward a resolution of the underlying situation/conflict...?

Jane Greer

Tom: I don't get it. "Nice lacks consideration, caring, compassion and connection"? "Nice is a mask to hide vengeance, hostility and other agendas"? It sure CAN be those things, but it can also be a way to smooth the naturally rutted road of working and living together.

Relationship-building takes a lot of time and hard work and I simply can't do it with everyone--but I CAN treat everyone with thoughtfulness and respect. To me, that's being nice, not "manipulating" them.

Even with people I have a deep relationship with, sometimes just being "nice" will get us through the day and give us--or give me--time to think about whether I ought to communicate more bluntly (or pointedly) about some issue.

I've disagreed with you pretty strongly in this comment, but I hope I was nice about it. I was nice not because I was trying to manipulate you but because if I'm not nice, we can't have a conversation. See?

Timothy Johnson

Tom and Jane ... play nice :) (Actually, great discussion - keep the conversation going - I want to see where it leads.)

Dana - sense of humor is one of those "thin ice" kinds of things. It really depends on the personalities involved and the appropriateness of the situation. I do think intent and integrity come into play a lot on this. Great comments.

Tom Haskins

Jane: You are being nice about it and so we can converse. I see that. I also see that you're being nice in the way I described. Where I'm coming from must be wrong, ill conceived, clueless or sadly mistaken. Hello! I care about relating too. We're not that different. I agree that nice is much better than outwardly mean, hostile, belligerent or vindictive when relationships are fragile, new and tense. That's the point Tim's wife is making when she is approving of people being nice.

But the point Tim is making about "Hell will be filled with nice people" is not about their thoughtfulness, smoothing over ruts, and doing the hard work of relating over time. When people's only choice is between being nice or mean, mean is sometimes better because it's honest and vulnerable - after the relationship can handle it. Nice is a cover-up, the hidden knife that stabs someone in the back during a hug. (It's not just central Iowa Tim, Denverites are in that passive-aggressive, food group too!). When Tim labels nice as "passive aggressive" he's referring to the same lurking hostilities that mean (hostile vindictive or aggressive ) people express without reservation.

I am delighted with the ways Tim tackles "breakdowns in relating" with his insights into office politics. I'm saying that consideration, caring, compassion and connection are different from being nice. You're very right about the hard work and time involved in relating when the other people are wrong or in need of correction. Relating is much easier when we genuinely care for them, feel compassion toward them, take their different perspectives into consideration and connect to our common interests. To do those things, we usually have no vengeance in our hearts, no intolerance of their lives and no fear of their conduct. We are at peace and non-judgmental. That's not nice, controlled, or passive aggressive. We're not keeping a lid on dark feelings or masking a hidden agenda. It's as honest and vulnerable as people who are blatantly mean - but it's caring, honest and vulnerable.

Does that help?

Jane Greer

Thanks for clarifying, Tom. I think our difference is semantic. Note that I didn't say "just" semantic: semantics are very important, especially in writing.

My adult son is mildly mentaly disabled and very vulnerable to people who are good at manipulation. My husband and I have always marveled at who our son thinks is "nice" and who he thinks is "mean." To him, "nice" means "smiles at me and makes life pleasant for me." "Mean" can mean anything from "doesn't smile at me" to "frowns at me" to "yells at me" to "gets in my face" to "beats the crap out of me."

Now, this is how a four-year-old naturally thinks about "nice" and "mean," but it just makes a 27-year-old man vulnerable. Manipulative people know exactly how to be thought of as "nice" in order to get something from my son. They can use him to do something wrong or illegal, but if they keep smiling and purring at him, he'll keep thinking they're "nice" even if he's gotten in deep trouble because of them.

I maintain that "being nice" and "stabbing someone in the back" are mutually exclusive. If you do either one, you can't do the other. "Nice" is the oil that helps this rough old world run more smoothly. "Being nice" demonstrates a conviction that everyone should be treated with respect from the get-go, whether you have a relationship with them or not. If I sometimes choose to say hard things to people when I think it's necessary or appropriate, regardless of the level of my relationship with them, I do it not because I'm "mean" but because I'm "nice."

I think you and I agree, for the most part, on how people should behave toward each other, but we're trying to stretch the word "nice" over territory it just can't accommodate. For myself, I prefer not to use it to describe the conniving, controlling, manipulative form of seeming to be pleasant, which just simply ISN'T "nice." (Being "nice" is the opposite of being "nicey-nice.") On the other hand, I tend to think that being "nice" CAN accommodate acts of "tough love" when necessary: saying or doing things, in a spirit of caring, that might make others uncomfortable or angry.

Tom Haskins

Thanks for this transparency and clarity. Let me try to restate the original problem that Tim wrote about and I relate to strongly-- now that you've given us more to relate to in your world. Using some examples from Colorado: A couple gets an offer from an organic farmer for a free live-in arrangement, if they help with the chores. The farmer seems really nice. An elementary school teacher meets the parents of a child that needs special attention during the first week of classes. The parents seem to be really nice. A handyman gets calls from homeowners in an upscale neighborhood. The first meeting goes very well. The homeowners seem very nice.

In each of these instances, the farmer, parents and homeowners seem really nice (thoughtful, respectful, considerate) on the first meeting. They are making a good impression. They are obviously not mean (hostile, antagonistic, adversarial). They are not nicey-nice (obsequious, ingratiating, needy). They appear like they really want to relate (work things out, reach common understandings, no hard feelings).

In each of these instances, and many more, the "really nice" people turned out to be mean (passive aggressive, manipulative, conniving). In hindsight, my friends and I have wondered where we went wrong, how we got misled, what didn't we see at first? We've come to the conclusion to "put nice on ice". Nice can be so misleading, because its superficial (mask, come-on, pretense). Being nice can pseudo relating if there's no taking the other person's point of view and effective use of questions. So we've come to the conclusion that it's more important to be honest, transparent and vulnerable than to be agreeable, easy to get along with and compatible.

Thanks for the dialogue about all this, Jane.

Jane Greer

This is interesting! I'd love examples of the "honest, transparent, and vulnerable" BEHAVIOR you would recommend for the couple, the teacher, and the handyman (as opposed to the "agreeable, easy-to-get-along-with, and compatible" behavior they apparently exhibited in real life). What should they have done differently, and how would it have protected them from being taken advantage of?

Tom Haskins

Thanks Jane--
Questions that take the other's point of view, demonstrate honest concern and open up to "bad news" -- work well:
1. What problems have you had with previous (tenants, contractors, teachers, etc) that could help us steer clear of those setbacks?
2. What are you looking for in a (tenant, etc) that it appears that I don't have to bring to the table?
3. What difference are you hoping this makes in your situation that seems like a long shot to expect or wish for?
4. What issue (kind of person, approach, philosophy) becomes high maintenance for you anytime you get involved in something like this?
5. What are the biggest regrets (complaints, criticisms, etc) that linger from the last time?
6. What contributes to the occasions where this kind of thing goes smoothly (turns out well, succeeds for you, etc)
7. What questions were you hoping I'd ask that I failed to mention?

I pre-ordered Tim's book GUST today. I may have a bunch of other ideas from him when it arrives next month.

Jane Greer

These are all great questions, Tom. They're questions that I would expect a NICE person with brains to ask. :-)

If you're dealing with a stinker, nothing is going to keep him or her from being a stinker, but questions like these may help normal people behave acceptably.

Tom Haskins

Thanks Jane. In the event of dealing with a real stinker, it's possible to turn the questions around so the nice person is asking her or himself these questions out loud:

"In situation like this, I usually get asked "What problems..?" and my answer is ...."

That way the stinker is getting some "tough love" and being shown how to be considerate of the nice person.

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