When Nice Ain’t So Nice
By Elouise Bell
The problem with Nice isn’t that it’s sometimes wimpy; the problem is that Nice can be dangerous. More crimes have been committed behind the mask of niceness than behind, all the ski masks worn to all the convenience store stickups ever perpetrated.
I don’t actually intend to talk about literal crimes here, but as long as the subject came up, it’s worth mentioning that until the roof caved in, everybody said Utah corporate conman Grant Affleck was a really nice guy. (Nice cuts both ways in giving Utah its title as Fraud Capital of the nation: we produce con men so nice they can’t be doubted, and victims so nice they “can’t say no.”) Documents forger and bomb killer Mark Hoffman, they said, was nice. Likewise convicted child sex abuser Alan Hadfield—so nice that an entire community rose up to vilify the victims and slander the messenger rather than accept the verdict on their nice-guy neighbor. And, apparently, Ted Bundy was as nice as they come.
I first identified niceness as a culprit with the help of a colleague, Karen Lynn. I told Karen that some of today’s college students seem pleasant enough, but somehow unpleasantly resistant at the same time, in a way that was unclear but very real.
“Oh, I know what you mean,” Karen said. “The students smile very politely, and the unspoken message goes like this: ‘I am a very nice person. I’m sure you are a very nice person too. Therefore I am sure you will give me a nice grade. And if you don’t—what’s wrong with you?'” Niceness in some students’ minds fulfills all obligations that one might otherwise expect to see paid in the coin of effort, intelligence, and results. (Incidentally, John Ciardi spotted the problem in the same setting. He wrote a fine poem called “On Flunking a Nice Boy Out of School.” I read it to students from time to time. Some laugh. Some sulk, suggesting tacitly that even reading the poem, is not very nice of me.) But I look beyond the classroom to find the arena where niceness is most harmful.
C.S. Lewis praises courage as the virtue that protects all other virtues. That is, it is courage which enables us to be truthful when speaking the truth may be risky; it is courage that backs up loyalty when loyalty is unpopular; it is certainly courage which makes patriotism meaningful in times of danger. By the same logic, I believe it is niceness which can corrupt all the other virtues. Niceness edits the truth, dilutes loyalty, makes a caricature of patriotism. It hobbles Justice, short-circuits Honor, and counterfeits Mercy, Compassion, and Love.
Nice is, among other things, a logic-proof argument (chronically nice students seem puzzled when I try to explain the rationale of penalties for late work; my reasons are all so irrelevant to their niceness), an undiscerning critique (Wayne Booth’s mother used to chide him: “Why must you be so critical in your reviews?”), and a silken shackle on the leg of millions of women.
(The list of things nice women don’t do includes, but is not limited to, thinking, speaking, moving in the romantic context—arguing, competing, winning, and laughing out loud. I had a very nice woman tell me once, after I had given some foolish presentation or another to her women’s group: “That was hilarious! Really hilarious! I almost laughed out loud!” Heaven forfend!)
Niceness begins in the home; it is taught as a prime doctrine of the “poisonous pedagogy” Alice Miller exposes. Miller, a brilliant Swiss psychologist whose work is assuming major proportions in the field, has traced much neurosis to the philosophy, dominant throughout most of this century, that the role of the child is to be docile, obedient, and subservient to the parent, whose word is law. The “poisonous pedagogy” teaches children, in other words, to be “nice.” It demands that children not resist the status quo, not take any direct action against whatever injustices are going down. Thus it indirectly but inevitably encourages covert action, manipulation, passive-aggression, duplicity, and denial. (My mother used to say in so many words: “Be nice. Don’t argue with your father. Agree with him, and then slip out the back door and do what you want, like your brothers do.” She also said to me with a simper: “Your father is the head of the home, remember that. And I’m the neck that moves the head!” My response to such advice was often a single, very un-nice word.)
As I look around the neighborhood, the campus, the community, and the church, I see one result of these teachings in the way nice people act when they disagree: sentimentally or deviously towards those we encounter face to face, and hostilely towards those we don’t know. For thirty years I have been upset and puzzled by the fiercely hostile tone of many Letters to the Editor of BYU’s student newspaper. These letters are not merely impassioned, not just full of youthful vigor and sass, not purely angry. They are hostile and mean-spirited. Whether discussing red tape in the Administration Building, parking on campus, or pricing in the Bookstore, the letters drip with innuendo, invective and scripture-laden scourging. All this from neatly dressed, smiling youths who hold doors open for each other and walk clear across campus to turn in stray Number Two pencils to the Lost-and-Found depository.
This same pattern shows up even more dangerously on our highways. The heavy artillery has so far blasted away only on the California freeways, but the nice, friendly, zucchini-sharing people of the Utah culture are not immune to the hostility that spurts out at strangers once we are behind the wheel. Afoot and at home in our own neighborhoods, we silently and smilingly put up with each other’s dogs that howl all night long, kids that trample our flower gardens, teens that sun-bathe and wash their cars to ear-shattering heavy metal music. But when we drive out of those neighborhoods, any stranger becomes fair game for our angry honking, cutting in, heading off, not-so-muted swearing, and flipping the bird. I am suggesting that there is a connection. If niceness did not forbid our direct assertion on dog howls and childish vandalism, perhaps there wouldn’t be quite so much hostility stored up waiting to slosh out on Interstate-15.
Nice takes other tolls. According to an article in the DeseretNews, 11 October 1989, pharmaceutical houses have hard data showing that Utahns (with a national reputation as your generic nice people) use huge quantities of tranquilizers and anti-depressants, far more per capita than the populations of other states. Depression of course has many causes, but repressed anger is among the foremost. Anger is punished and prohibited from childhood in cultures that teach the poisonous pedagogy and preach the creed of niceness. I fantasize about what life in Happy Valley might be like if the lid of niceness were eased off the pressure cooker of emotions.
I worry about hostility on the highways and depression in the home. I worry about battering and abuse, both physical and sexual, that seem to be on the rise in places where you wouldn’t expect it. For instance, I learned (without seeking the information) that in my very nice young-executive neighborhood of about fifteen homes, at least five wives are beaten regularly by their husbands. One of the nicest men in the ward has been convicted of sexual molestation. Absolutely the nicest elder I knew in the mission field afterward had to uproot his wife and family and give up his profession because he had been found guilty of molesting preschoolers. I seriously wonder: if these men had been under less pressure to be “nice,” would they have been more in touch with their dark sides—the dark side that we all have—and thus more able to deal directly with violent impulses before they became actions?
If the cultural mandate to be Nice has driven men’s darker sides into hiding, what can we say about women, who aren’t even supposed to have dark sides? Passive aggression is one of the milder manifestations of Niceness, seen in the woman who wouldn’t say no to anyone, but who will repeatedly keep you waiting an hour, or “accidentally” smash the fender on your borrowed car, or “forget” an important responsibility she promised to manage. More deadly is the Nice Lady who never raises her voice, never utters the slightest profanity, but whose devastating words and emotional abuse leave permanent scars as disfiguring to the soul as any physical battering is to the body. (Shakespeare’s comment on the matter: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”)
And thus we come to the quick of this terrible ulcer. The creed of niceness does damage to the Self, to the soul. The struggle for personal authenticity is a lifelong one, the true Hero Journey we all must take if life is to have meaning. And the demons with which we grapple in the underworld have many shapes. Some have names long memorialized in literature: Pride, Sloth, Envy, Avarice. Others are more pastel despots: Conformity, Busyness. And Niceness.
How does Niceness threaten the hero on the journey? The quest is for the authentic Self to discover as many of the particulars as possible from an infinite number of particulars, and especially certain crucial particulars about that totally unique, eternally individual, unceasingly changing Self. And as if this labor were not Herculean enough, the Hero, even as she seeks the True Self, must somehow nurture—that is, foster the growth of—that evasive, elusive Self. Niceness threatens by saying there is no True Self, or that the True Self is synonymous with the Natural Man (and thus an enemy to God), or that the False Self is what we ought to seek.
Permit me a metaphor. Imagine a mother, a Queen, if you like, who awakens from the sleep that follows childbirth to discover that her child has been abducted, carried away. At first there are some signs of the child—a cry down a long corridor, a blanket woven for the baby and discovered on the lawn, perhaps a scent of baby’s breath on the night air. These eventually stop. Time passes. The mother searches night and day. And every now and then she hears from the child—a lisping voice over a telephone line, garbled with static; torn parts of a hand-written note; sometimes even a little gift, sent with love. And the mother continues to hunt for her child, to follow clues, and to send the child, by whatever means—on the phone in the fleeting moments permitted, by thought transference, by prayer—all the love and support she can muster, as the search continues.
Now imagine that, in the midst of these labors, the mother is repeatedly beset by concerned people—most prominently the Queen Mother and her consort—who urge her to break off her search, who try to press a different child on her, insisting that this one is much “nicer” than her own, scolding her, saying she is selfish, willful, possibly even crazy to go on with her search. If the opposition is persistent, the Queen may eventually come to believe she is crazy, to doubt that there ever was such a child, to cease following the clues, to grow deaf to the voice on the other end of the phone. To give up the search. Devotees of the cult of niceness abandon the True Self and promote the False Self, the self that psychologist John Bradshaw describes this way: “You pretend a lot. You gauge your behavior by how it looks—by the image you believe you’re making. You wear a mask, play a rigid role, and hide your emotions. You say you’re fine when you feel hurt or sad. You say you’re not angry when you are.” (Bradshaw On: The Family [Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1988], 159.)
You’ve heard of the Nicene Creed, the Christian confession of faith first adopted in 325? Now hear the Nice Creed:
We believe in being Nice,
in speaking softly at all times,
even when loud objection may be
more logical;in saying nothing in
response to minor
inconveniences such as
being jostled on a bus,
or relegated to a back seat,
or not being allowed to ride at all,
or being run over by the bus;
and in saying even the most
appalling things in soft,
non-committal tones, even,
if worst comes to the worst,
We guard against silence as against
speaking out, for in silence is
Thought born; therefore, we
cultivate and foster small talk,
which says naught yet smothers
We believe that pleasantries are
better than truths, friendliness
better than honor, jocularity
better than Justice.
We believe that neatness is the end
of logic and cleanliness the
epitome of order.
And we most devoutly believe in
seeing nothing that is
We believe in turning the other head,
closing the other eye,
stopping the other ear,
and biting the other tongue.
Etymology often uncovers hidden truths. The word “nice” can be traced back through Middle English to mean strange, lazy, foolish; through Old French to mean stupid or foolish; to the Latin “nescius,” meaning ignorant, not knowing. Bear in mind that George Orwell insisted most ignorance is intentional, and you understand the serious danger of niceness: deliberate, lazy not knowing. Not wanting to know, not willing to know, not about to know.
Know what? Why, anything. Anything at all. Not to take one nibble from one piece of fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but to remain, instead, Nice. Not to know about History, except for a few pretty branches used as decoration. So much of History is not nice at all. For one thing, those who refuse to ignore history are destined to think about it. Certainly not to know about Poverty. Distinctly not nice. Nice people do not want homeless shelters in their neighborhoods, or their town, if it comes to that; they don’t want group homes or halfway houses or soup kitchens; in fact, they are nervous about public benches on the streets unless they are built with dividers to prevent reclining; nice people don’t sleep on benches, after all. Not to know about Death, but to confine him to curtained cubicles in isolated “units” of hospitals and nursing homes. Death is unequivocally not nice.
Nice flies under false colors, wants the reputation of the gentle dove without the wisdom of the wise serpent. It is the Great Imposter, having none of the power of Virtue but seeking the influence thereof. Nice is neither kind, nor compassionate, neither good nor full of good cheer, neither hot nor cold. But, being puffed up in its own vanity, it is considerably more dangerous than luke-wannth.
Nice, in short, ain’t so nice.
Elouise Bell, professor of English and associate dean of General and Honors Education at BYU, is the author of Only When I Laugh (Salt Lake City: Signature Books), from which this article is taken.