Essays on Technology and Culture

On Being Nice, Part 2: What Being Nice Means

What does it mean to be nice?

It might be easier to say what being nice doesn’t mean. Being nice is not the same as being milquetoast. It doesn’t mean not having firm, honest opinions. It doesn’t mean being someone people walk all over. It also doesn’t mean the Minnesota nice of passive aggression. To me, being nice, as a virtue, is about two things: discretion and delivery. Discretion is the fine art of knowing what to say, how to say it, and when. A quick example is, say, the person next to you at work constantly playing loud, terrible music at you. It’s very easy to walk over and yell at them. It’s easy to be passive-aggressive and turn your music up, or theirs down when they go to the bathroom. As I mentioned last week, however, these aren’t likely to affect someone else’s behavior. A carefully worded, polite, friendly comment, with a proposed behavior suggestion for both of you is more likely to be effective.

Unless they’re an unrepentant jerk, but those are rarer than we imagine.

Discretion is also about where we say things. You’re polite, one hopes, to the jerk with the bad music taste in the office. At home, to your partner, you can let it spill. Every social environment has its own level of acceptable discourse about itself and its inhabitants. I’ve been in work environments where taking the piss out of your co-workers was de rigeur, and places where a misplaced word can have long-term consequences. If you’re not sure, a safe default is “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This is hard stuff, especially at first. If you’re used to being brusque and callous to the point where it’s second nature, try faking it until you make it. With practice—and I do not suggest trying this without practicing first—fake niceness (without the layer of passive-aggression) is indistinguishable enough from the real thing. In any job that involves face-to-face interaction with a fickle and often rude public, dealing with a friendly face, even if it’s an act, is often enough to bring some of the rudest people to their senses. If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve likely seen this in action. David Foster Wallace called it the “Professional Smile,” and noted the effect not receiving it has on how you walk away from an interaction: it’s not good.

Don’t expect to change the way you think of people, and certainly not overnight. What is more important is how you act with people. Given enough time, it’s possible that you will become sincere and nice in how you deal with people. Maybe. Once it feels real to you, as long as there’s no nagging guilt that inevitably comes with a bad interaction, and as long as the person you’re dealing with walks away with a positive impression, you’re doing the right thing. Like so much, this all comes down to mindfulness. Taking a step back from your actions and being aware of the choices you make in interacting with others goes a long way to ensuring you come off as nice. There are enough proverbs about the utility of holding ones tongue that it’s pointless to repeat them here. Remember: you do have a choice about what to say and how to say it. Take time and aim. When you shoot your mouth off from the hip, as it were, you risk missing, and you risk hurting yourself and others. This isn’t cheap, liberal arts relativism. It’s dealing with people.

And, hey, I’m not perfect. Nor do I aspire to be. However, the day will come, sooner than later, when a perfect confluence of events will tax my patience to the limit. My alarm clock won’t go off. The subway will break down, making me late for work. I won’t have had my morning coffee. I’ll find out I had an appointment I forgot about. The cashier won’t give me my change when I got lunch. It rained and I forgot an umbrella. Then, someone will say something to push me over the edge. How one deals with that is the ultimate test of how well you can maintain your niceness.

There’s a time and place to say your piece, and a time and a place to shut your mouth. Generally, unsolicited comments don’t go over well with the recipient, whether you deliver it in a friendly manner, or a sotto voiced rejoinder after an encounter. In cases like these, it’s best to learn to let it go, and not let these things get to you. After all, “what do you care?” In those cases where someone sincerely wants an opinion, don’t be cruel. Be honest, be frank, and be sincere, but by no means be cruel. Everybody has a reason why they do what they do. That doesn’t mean you understand it. It also doesn’t mean they understand it. When dealing with other people, unless you’re Charles Xavier, you don’t have the ability to control how they think or act. You can encourage and suggest, but the way you do it will have a huge impact on how well it goes over. And there are no guarantees.

This is hard. It’s hard to balance being nice with being honest, and being strong. It’s hard to bite your tongue when someone’s goading you, directly or indirectly. It’s very hard to get that angry, threatened part of your brain to stand down. Hard, however, is not the same as impossible. It all comes back to mindfulness. Slow down, step back, think before you speak, or type, or click “Submit” and see if this is going to actually help matters. And, of course, in the event you do blow it and wreck someone’s mood, step on someone’s toes, and make the situation worse, rather than feed the cycle, apologize and move on. Or, just move on, if you have to. I think, however, the results of being nice pay off in the long run, far better than the initial pleasures of snark. Try it for yourself, and see.