“You taught me to be nice, so nice, that I am now full of niceness; I have no sense of right and wrong, no outrage, no passion.” Garrison Keillor
During the 3-hour drive home from the cottage last weekend I listened to an interview with James Hollis, a Jungian analyst discussing one of his books Finding Meaning in The Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up. During the interview Hollis expounded on ‘nice’ people and how dangerous it was to spend your life being compliant, accommodating your opinions, adjusting your viewpoints, and adapting to others. He labelled this quality ‘reflexive niceness’ and cautioned that this type of niceness can result in a loss of personal integrity.
The interview made me think about a postworksavvy life and what it means to be nice. Most of us are socialized to be polite, respectful, considerate and tactful. These skills help us to navigate our world successfully and allow for engagement in a civic society. Being ‘nice’ usually leads to acceptance by others. After all, who wants to spend time with a disagreeable, argumentative person?
The Cost of Being ‘Nice’
But sometimes being nice might mean self-sacrifice. Agreeing with a viewpoint to which I don’t subscribe might mean avoiding an argument with a friend. Agreeing — the nice response — can be a short cut to a pleasant conversation but the price might be a loss of self-respect or a missed opportunity to have a genuine exchange of thoughts.
When my husband is talking with me and I am pre-occupied or busy, I might smile and nod without really listening. I find myself not taking full responsibility for my response. The unfortunate result is an unintentional ‘nice’ response that is unfair to both of us and leaves us struggling with incomplete communication. Needless to say, it’s not a great relationship-building move and it’s a lost opportunity for both of us.
Being nice might also compromise individuality. I have learned to think for myself. However, taking a contrarian position may involve risk of ridicule in some social situations. It may mean that I expose personal values that conflict with the broadly held beliefs of mainstream society.
Why it’s easier to be ‘nice’
We all want to avoid suffering. We don’t like to hurt others. Consequently, it is often easier to be ‘nice’ rather than to give an authentic response.
Do you really want to describe your troubles to everyone who asks how you’re doing? Who benefits when you tell them the truth about whether they look fat in a certain outfit or whether the dinner they cooked tasted awful? Is it fair to diminish a child’s self-esteem with a real assessment about the sound of their attempts at learning to play the piano or violin? Sometimes self-censorship is the correct way of behaving.
Giving a ‘nice’ response, even if it is not the honest-to-goodness truth is the socially intelligent reaction. It avoids unpleasant exchanges. A superficial reply sometimes saves a lot of hurt and discomfort.
The Courage to Respond with Authenticity
For the fulfilled postworksavvy life, it is important to be conscious of the cost of giving a ‘nice’ response especially when the ‘nice’ response avoids having a genuine or real exhange. Opportunities to have sincere dialogue with our spouses, family members and our friends can’t be missed.
Superficiality won’t work in these exchanges. Respectful and honest exchanges based on authentic feelings and emotions build trust and strengthen us.
It takes courage to be true to your own personality, your values and your innermost beliefs. But it is these authentic exchanges that make life meaningful — and what’s not ‘nice’ about that?