A friend and I recently had a discussion about the nature of ‘being nice’. It seems that many self-help gurus and productivity teachers believe that being ‘nice’ is actually a sign of weakness – that if you’re overly nice then you end up exposing yourself to people who might take advantage of that quality and you come off as somewhat needy or even as a creep. This was the philosophy put forward in the book I was reading, which championed the ‘alpha male’ option of asserting yourself; but it stood in stark contrast to the book he was reading – which was based around an interview with the Dalai Lama. You know him, number one advocate for ‘turning the other cheek’ to retain the moral high ground and maintain a calm and happy outlook? Yeah, that guy.
Both views seemed to have merits and it was hard to write off either of them as ‘wrong’, so after a lengthy debate I decided to look into the matter myself in a little more detail and do some research. After reading several books on the matter and searching my own feelings, this is what I came up with…
When Being Nice Sucks
Sometimes being ‘nice’ does indeed suck. Apart from anything else, there is hardly a wetter word in the English language than ‘nice’ which is just a million miles away from being ‘genuine’, being ‘kind’ or being ‘friendly’. When you’re ‘nice’ it suggests a rather fluffy state of mind and a rather boring one at that. If someone describes you as ‘nice’ it can even sound like an insult: suggesting that you’re too bland to be worthy of a description like ‘awesome’ and not nice enough to earn the term ‘generous’.
An interesting video I watched on the subject suggested that the word actual implied a certain amount of passivity and phoniness. The speaker suggested that being ‘nice’ was an act you put on to hide your true feelings (as you might have done when your parents told you to ‘be nice’ to your sister), whereas being ‘kind’ or being ‘thoughtful’ suggested a more internal change in your thinking and more genuine set of behaviours.
And ‘nice’ people it seems sometimes are phonies. How many times have you met someone who is overly nice and felt immediately suspicious? Nine times out of ten, either they are trying to sell you something or sign something, or they are just trying to worm their way into your good favour. We can intuitively tell when someone is being nice with an ulterior motive and this can make us immediately suspicious of someone. I knew a guy once who used to make a big thing of just how ‘nice’ he was by constantly doing good deeds then basking in the glory. He’d open a door for a little old lady, then explain to her gratuitously how it was ‘no problem at all’ and ‘my pleasure in fact’ and then condescendingly say ‘you have a nice day now’. He was nice, but he wasn’t at all genuine – he was motivated by ‘looking good’.
Sometimes niceness can be a literal sign of weakness. You know – the kind of person who constantly agrees with everything you say just because they’re too afraid to have an opinion of their own and risk not being liked. These are the kinds of people that others take advantage of and that we think of as spineless and slimy.
Being Nice Is Bad for You
At the same time, being nice all the time isn’t particularly healthy. The Dalai Lama recommends constantly turning the other cheek and smiling at people who annoy you or take advantage of you. While there is merit in this advice – and being able to let go of anger is a good ability to cultivate – Freud would suggest that he’s probably repressing an awful lot of anger.
You see, when someone gets us mad and pushes in front of us in the queue, our body reacts via a physiological response that raises our heartbeat and pumps us full of testosterone. This is an evolutionary response, designed to make sure that we protect our rights and our possessions and to prevent others from constantly walking all over us.
If you then swallow this feeling that’s rising up, you’re going against what your body wants you to do. This way, you’re not only being almost ‘dishonest’ in your response (that will be a very fake smile you flash), but you’re also suppressing a lot of rage that will likely come out in one way or another – either in the form of a nervous breakdown or an argument with your partner.
One of these days the Dalai Lama is going to snap. Stand back when that happens, because years of pent up aggression will come pouring out…
(Okay that’s not likely to happen, but you get the point… )
Being ‘Mean’ Is Not the Answer
So does that mean that I’m advocating being a Jackass? Should you head out right now and push over the first person who gets in your way? Of course not – because while being ‘nice’ might be bad, being a jackass is worse.
And often people are jackasses for the precise same reasons that other people are nice – because they’re trying to impress or to get what they want. There are plenty of people out there who think that the only way they can show off their confidence and their machismo, is to go around pushing others around and making stubborn stands when it won’t actually achieve anything. People who argue for argument’s sake (often found in the office), are some of the least likeable people on the planet.
Furthermore, being ‘not nice’ isn’t particularly good for you in the long term either. You’ll be constantly getting yourself aggravated and raising your heart rate and this will make you more prone to flying off the handle in future. Then there’s the small matter of everyone starting to avoid you…
The solution then is to stop worrying about whether you’re being nice or not and to instead focus on being genuine while at the same time striving to become a better person and trying to do right by others.
So if someone pushes in front of you in the queue, don’t just smile at them and don’t fly off the handle. Release that surge of rage by telling them how you feel and asking them how they justify their actions. You don’t have to be aggressive – just assertive and confident.
And when it comes to being ‘nice’ the trick is to come from the right place. Don’t be nice because you want something, or because you are trying to win friends or avoid arguments. Instead, be nice because you’re confident in who you are and because you have everything you need. That way you won’t have any reason not to be a nice and genuine person and you can start treating others well because you’ll be in a strong position to do so. Focus on making yourself into a better person and don’t worry about putting on the behaviour you think is the correct one.