Saturday, January 04, 2014

Until It's Time to Not Be Nice

I was talking to a friend yesterday about someone I know and she doesn't, and she said, "[That person] doesn't sound very nice."

It was a fair comment — the point of the story I was telling was about someone letting me down — but it flummoxed me. It had never occurred to me even to wonder whether that person, who is also someone I consider a friend, was or is nice.
adjective \ˈnīs\
: giving pleasure or joy : good and enjoyable
: attractive or of good quality
: kind, polite, and friendly
Patrick Swayze aside, "nice" is more of an issue for women than for men. We are told to be nice even before we can walk. We can't ever get away from it, and it warps our place in the world in ways men don't always believe, even when we explain it clearly and compellingly. Within the past 24 hours I have read terrific essays on whether female literary protagonists (or their creators) need to be likable, and on the corrosive effects of sexual harassment in the world of comics. So much of all of that comes down to the ridiculous, irrelevant, murderous question: "Can't you just be nice?"

Nice is not anything I've ever looked for in a friend. I tend to prefer the company of the self-absorbed; most artists are, and frankly I find it restful. Many people (not all people, but most of my casual acquaintances), might say that I am "nice," and I'll tell you what that's gotten me: a lot of mentions in the acknowledgment pages of other people's books. At 48, if I had the chance to give my 16-year-old self some advice, what I would tell her is: Forget nice. Save yourself first.

That's not to say that we are not all obligated to be kind, or that we are not all obligated to pay attention to the wants and needs of others, and make compromises with the people we love. That's not niceness. Niceness has more to do with how we want others to perceive us, and the desire to avoid conflict or criticism. It's why the flight attendants tell us to put our own air masks on first, because that's not the "nice" thing to do.

One good thing from my hashing all this out here, at least, is that I'm no longer annoyed with the friend I was complaining about yesterday at all.


Anonymous said...

flummoxed, Now there's a word I haven't used for a while.


Richard Bostwick

Keith Bea said...

"Nice guys come in last." This is not a male v. female issue. It is an outcome of a society that rewards competitive actions, discards losers, and thrives on winner take all conclusions. (Yes, I am cheering as the Chiefs run over the Colts. Just wait 'til the Pack is back.) As an old man, as my son refers to me, I am amazed at the lack of civility in the 21st century U.S. So women are now encouraged to "lean in" and make sure they have the max. Guys will be expected to step up their game and take no prisoners. There is no gentle sex. Nobody has to be nice; nobody is on nobody's side (to be sung full throttle). Result: I no longer expect few people (except my family and friends), male or female, to be courteous or gentle. I am pleasantly surprised when I see those signs. Let the winners take it all; I will find or create my peace.

Thanks for, once again, raising another topic for motivating thought and discussion. You are good in many ways, and brave as well as nice.

Keith Bea

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Flummoxed is a great word! And Keith, I appreciate that, but this actually isn't about courtesy or even gentility. It's about the deference that women, especially, are still expected to show in situations where priorities clash. It's about holding one's tongue to avoid making a scene when sometimes a scene is what the situation requires. It's about lying to oneself about being liked taking precedence over getting what you need. I'm all for courtesy.

Muthahun said...

Around my house, flummoxed actually becomes kerflummoxed rather often, and yes, great word. Good thoughts, too, Ellen, which lead me to the further examination of "nice" which I find carries with it a certain... fake... quality. I suppose that's closely related to those childhood orders to "be nice" when in fact, as pissed off kids, we wanted to be anything but. BUT, depending on risk/rewards, or perhaps respect/fear, we often did "make nice"... slapped an insipid smile on our little faces and scraped and nodded so as to not land ourselves in hot water. So much more beneficial for everyone to be kind, eh? Kind is just solid good; no pretense whatsoever. Thanks for the chat. Have a lovely evening. Sam

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is much more important to be kind than it is to be nice. I am often kind, but have been told I am not particularly nice. I believe in being who you are regardless of the perceptions of others. I don't feel the need to apologize for who I am. If you don't like me, that is not my problem. I must be true to myself first.

Karen LaPlante

Keith Bea said...

Hmmm, I understand the distinction you have drawn. I just don't see (and have rarely seen) too many women, of any age, deferring or holding back, especially when priorities are up for debate. Conflict is often desired even when not necessary. Maybe that has something to do with my lifelong experience, and I do mean throughout my life. But that's for a different couch.