Friday, August 5, 2011

Nice Is a Four Letter Word

I’m not sure when or why “nice” became a near-insult and the condition of being nice became something to avoid or to apologize for.  Etymology might explain the current attitude; the word is derived from the Anglo-Norman nice, nis, nise, Old French nice, and classical Latin nescius, all of which carried the meaning “foolish, silly, or ignorant”. But those meanings are now obsolete, and even if the semantic changes are unclear, since at least the late 18th century, “nice” has carried the meaning, when describing a person, of “pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured; attractive.” I see nothing in that definition to merit contempt. And I doubt that most of those who sneer at the word know about its etymology.

Many of us can recall parental cautions to “play nice” with siblings or other groups of children. Perhaps you have issued this instruction to your own children. Children, of course, can be unrepentant savages uninterested in considering the feelings of others and not yet aware of the rewards kindness holds for giver, receiver, and the surrounding world. But we are no longer children. We know that those who see being nice as weak and hypocritical create pain and humiliation for others, leaving a legacy of anger and resentment that sooner or later will rebound.

Recently a few trusted friends and I were discussing this issue, and one said, “I’m sick and tired of seeing ‘being nice’ derided as some kind of cowardly impulse. Being nice is HARD.”  Indeed, it is. Ignoring the feelings of others is easy. Saying what we feel with no consideration of how our words affect others is easy. Giving into an impulse that lets us feel superior is easy. It’s instant gratification—but at a cost. It's always easier to be snide and snarky and congratulate yourself on your own cleverness than it is to care about how others feel and to avoid dumping more negativity into the world. 

Conventional wisdom is wrong; being nice is not weak. As another friend added in that discussion, “Being nice . . . takes a #&*# load of strength.” That’s a sentiment with which some champions of niceness would concur. Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval built the Kaplan Thaler Group, one of the nation’s most successful advertising agencies (The Aflac duck is their creation) following a philosophy of niceness. In the corporate world where cut-throat strategies are commonplace, Thaler and Koval had the strength to go against common practice and reject intimidation, back stabbing, and egotism to practice kindness, consideration, and empathy. They emphasize that niceness is not a choice made from weakness. In their New York Times bestselling book The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness (2006), they describe “nice” as the “toughest four letter word you’ll ever know.” It’s a tough word they credit with helping them build a billion dollar business, a tough word that is central to their professional identities. My friend Santa understands that connection holds true for writers as well. She’s observed firsthand the kindness some of the best in our genre practice routinely—and the lack of thoughtfulness practiced by others. Choosing niceness, San says, “really boils down to being a professional.”
U.S. Representative Lois Capps of California is aother professional who understands the power of nice. In fact, Washingtonian Magazine four times has officially proclaimed her the Nicest Member of Congress, an award based on annual surveys of Capitol Hill staff. Capps’s opponents labeled her a “nice lady” too and failed to take her seriously. They discovered their mistake when the “nice lady” beat them at the polls and went on to become a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the House’s three most powerful committees. She has proved her toughness in fighting for health care, education, coastal protection, and offshore oil, and one local newspaper likens the power of the slender Capps within her district to that of an 800-pound gorilla. There’s nothing weak about this “nice lady.”
Thaler and Koval suggest essential steps in practicing niceness. The steps seem applicable not just to the world of business but also to our professional and personal worlds and to the larger world we all inhabit. Two of the steps particularly resonated with me because the failure to implement these steps goes to the heart of the incidents that provoked the discussion my friends and I had. Try to feel what the other person is experiencing, Thaler and Koval advise, and you will see beyond the limitations of your own point of view. Then, silence your ego sometimes and let go. Another friend in that discussion labeled people who won’t allow themselves to be empathetic “mental toddlers” whose determination to be first, to be right, to be smart feeds their “monster egos” but makes them as unhappy as they make others. She asked us to promise each other that we would never choose feeding our egos over feeling for people. We promised.
I assure you that none of us are all sweetness and light. We get angry, we deal with people we don’t like, and we have our share of self-centeredness. But we believe, as Samuel Johnson said, “Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.” We believe “playing nice” is a tough choice, but it’s one we are committed to making. In the words of Thaler and Koval:

The power of nice is not about running around maniacally smiling and doing everyone's bidding, all the while calculating what you'll get in return. It's not about being phony or manipulative. It's about valuing niceness--in yourself and in others--the same way you respect intelligence, beauty, or talent. Niceness is a powerful force.

May the force be with you.
Where so you stand on the issue of niceness? Do you see it as a tough choice or a wimp out?


TerriOsburn said...

Wonderful blog, Janga. I would really like to see nice find a stronger footing all over the internet, but especially in these debates about the changes in Publishing.

I understand writers feel strongly about these issues. Everything from what we write to how we write to what we can earn from our work is uncertain right now. Knowing what the industry will look like in six months or even six weeks is anyone's guess.

My concern is that it feels as if writers are turning on each other, instead of working together to figure it all out. Not every writer will make the same choices, but throwing stones at a writer for making a choice I don't agree with doesn't make much sense.

I'm all for discussion and expression of opinions, but many debates I see these days turn into judgments and even name calling. Nothing positive can come out of these sorts of online arguments.

MsHellion said...

Brilliant blog. I love it and it's so true. I think my irritation with "nice" is that being nice is not always genuine. I associate it with "politeness" which I think is Nice's nastier cousin. I think of the aristocracy who was POLITE to their inferiors, but weren't necessarily NICE. And not particularly sincere either. Being polite was a reflection of them than actually trying to be kind to others. You know, so others would think well of them not because they actually cared about those they helped.

BUT I think most people who are nice--even when it's the hardest work you'll ever do--do do it out of a sense of sincerity within. My reaction is more out of paranoia and lack of self-worth rather than actual evidence that nice people aren't actually sincere.

Also I think people who are "nice" are put on pedestals, so when it's revealed they are as human as the rest of us--we judge them as insincere. See Christian people who are nice in some areas, but completely judgmental and cruel in others. My intolerance for many churches is because of this. You'll see them band together and do great things, but then on the other hand, say something that is totally non-Christian.

I think being NICE is a good quality, but I suppose we should aspire to be KIND, which I think is the level above nice. :)

All that said, I still think romance writers are the nicest people to work with. They're very much a pay it forward group. They're a passionate, artistic group, which is what leads to these meltdowns where we're namecalling and accusing people. *LOL* What else can you expect from passionate artists? We're emotional and sensitive...and we say things out of anger. But in the end we learn from these setbacks and become better, KINDER people for it. I hope. :)

Janga said...

Thanks, Ter. Yes, one of the things that troubles me is the idea that being nice means never expressing an opinion that disagrees with someone else's. Debate is healthy, and I disagree, sometimes vehemently, with close friends, but there's a huge difference in debate and discussion and the ranting, namecalling, and veiled and unveiled insults that are sometimes labeled "debate."

I think a lot of the ugliness stems from fear, but you are right. We all lose when exchanges drop to that level.

Janga said...

Hellie, you reminded me of a great description from a Salon article that I came across when I was working on this post. The writer described the romance community as "“a community that prides itself on its public civility and smiley mutual enthusiasm -- even if it is sometimes undertaken with secretly clenched teeth.” LOL

The usual civility and graciousness make the incivility and nastiness more disturbing when it does occur.

As for churches, I know they harbor their share of hypocrites, but they are also filled with people who struggle to make their beliefs a matter of life service rather than merely lip service. "The saints are just the sinners who fall down and get up, who fall down and get up . . ." Did you read Nicholas Kristof's piece on John Stott in the NYT?

TerriOsburn said...

I think that "clenched teeth" aspect creeps into everything. Usually through politics. I remember when I moved to Nashville back in '94. If you asked any country music fan their perception of Nashville (from the outside) I would suggest they believe it to be a nice place where people are sweet and ready to greet you with a hug and "Howdy y'all, come on in."

That's what I thought too. Then I moved to Nashville and went to work on the fringes of the music business. Talk about smiling niceties through clenched teeth. LOL!

Keira Soleore said...

Love this blog, Janga. Just love it!

Being nice is so different from being nicey-nice, all outwardly sweetness and light while inwardly jealous and back-biting at the closest opportunity. Absolutely cannot stand such folks.

Janga said...

You're probably right, Ter. It's certainly something I saw often within academic circles. I also observed "that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain," to borrow a line from the always useful Shakespeare.

Janga said...

Thanks, Keira. Your nicey-nice description reminds me of Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books. She seemed as vile to me as Voldemort himself. And yes, that faked sweetness is a far cry from genuine niceness.

irisheyes said...

Love this blog! I've always felt that genuine niceness gets a bad rap and isn't appreciated as much as it should be.

I love what you said about it being hard to be nice and keep unkind opinions to ourselves. I see more and more that people just don't feel the need to filter their thoughts as much as they used to. It's the new "me, me, me" generation (listen to me I sound like my grandmother! Sheesh! LOL).

It's true, though. I see it a lot in my children's generation also. If it feels good to you, then go ahead - who cares what the consequences are or whose feelings you hurt - as long as you get to voice your opinion that's all that matters. I still hear myself telling my kids that if they can't say something nice don't say anything at all.

I know the way they all get around being kind is by saying they are just being honest. But in my opinion, there is a fine line between honesty and just wanting your opinion heard. And I suppose if you absolutely have to say something a little tact would go a long way. There are so many instances where I think to myself - if that was just said in a kinder more tactful way the point would have been taken instead of disregarded.

PJ said...

Excellent blog! I see nothing wrong or weak in being genuinely nice. My grandmother lived by the Golden Rule and taught me to do the same. Do I consider myself weak? No. Am I hesitant to voice an opinion? No. Will I do it in a snarky way and at another person's expense? Heck no!

Healthy discussion and dissension are just that. Healthy. But it seems as if we've grown a segment of the populace who thinks it's their "right" to denigrate others, to substantiate their position on issues only by tearing apart the opposition in a mean-spirited, personal way. It concerns me when I see people who should unite and support one another in their common cause instead turn on one another because of a difference of opinion or an alternate path taken.

Janga said...

Irish, I agree that honesty is sometimes used as an excuse to disregard other's feelings. It's ironic that so many of those "honest" people are quite thin-skinned themselves and no nearly so thrilled with honesty when someone is being honest at their expense.

I also think Net culture encourages attacks in the guise of honesty because it allows the rude, the crude, and the 'tudes to hide behind anonymous postings.

Janga said...

Thanks. PJ. The Golden Rule exists in some form in most of the world's great religions. Certainly we'd have a more civil, harmonious world if more people lived by it.

I too find the absence of niceness particularly disturbing in groups that should be working together. Even in churches discord and mean-spiritedness can rear their heads.