(Reblogged from July 2011)
I confess. I’m a nice person. Being nice has been woven into the fabric of my character since the day I took my first breath. I could certainly make a case that being nice is in my DNA. My Mom was an incredibly nice person as I think most of her friends and acquaintances would attest. My Dad is nice to a fault. In fact, I don’t ever recall being disciplined by him – that’s how nice he is.
Niceness is the unspoken first law of Mormonism and it probably makes anyone’s top ten list of American cultural virtues as well. You don’t join a 3rd or 4th generation American Mormon family without some “nice” blood running through your veins. I love that the Book of Mormon musical lampoons this Mormon American trait, but why is it so funny? What’s so wrong with being nice? Mormons have perfected niceness to an art form but I’m personally trying to overcome my niceness and here’s why:
Niceness is not a virtue
As a former boy scout, I remember the Scout Oath :
A Scout is:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, Reverent
“Nice” is interestingly absent.
Being nice is not the same as being courteous, kind, helpful or friendly although I think it is sometimes mis-perceived as those virtues. But it’s not. “Nice” is a tactic, rather than a virtue. It can be virtuous or vicious depending on how it is used. There are certainly times when niceness comes into play with being courteous, kind, helpful and friendly. But as a character trait “Nice” is a false and shallow substitute; it is the saccharine of good character. When misapplied or overused it can have negative side effects. It is sweet, but leaves an aftertaste.
Only after a long diet of niceness do you realize you haven’t been nourished.
NICE is often insincere
Being friendly sometimes requires the type of honesty that values a long-term relationship and that’s not always nice. Niceness, on the other hand, worships immediate social comfort over long-term depth. It’s not friendly.
As I said, Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who highly value and encourage niceness. I’m reminded that my former European students used to complain about American niceness and how difficult it was for them to establish meaningful relationships with Americans because if it. To them, it was evident when they caught us saying things we didn’t really mean:
“Why don’t you drop by the my house sometime!”
“You should come with us!”
Or, asking questions we didn’t really care to hear the answer to:
“How are you?”
“How was the _____? (movie, dinner, trip, party, etc…)”
Any sort of honest or detailed response to these (such as actually showing up to the house or giving a detailed opinion of the good/bad) is usually met with shock.
Being nice, at its core, means not being honest whether it’s a half-hearted invitation, or an opinion that only expresses positive thoughts.
NICE often stunts growth
Niceness prizes Yes-men, the status quo and stunts growth. On the other hand, kindness sometimes involves the hard truth. I had a high school English teacher my freshman year who wasn’t very nice. She pulled me aside and told me I wasn’t advanced enough to be in her college prep English class. She advised me to transfer to a lower-level class. That wasn’t nice but it was true, and it certainly pushed me to work harder. I later became an English Teacher by profession.
As a BYU student, I was often shocked by my nice classmates who would approach nice professors and beg for a better grade, a nicer grade. And they almost always got it. I was never able to use “nice” sufficiently enough to do that for myself. I guess I had some nice boundaries or at least knew that I’d gotten the grade I had earned in most cases.
Nice never includes helpful criticism that encourages an individual to grow and stretch. You can’t watch one of the popular TV reality talent competitions like American Idol without wondering why no one ever told some of those folks who audition the truth. Honest judges get a bad rap for being the first one to tell some of those folks the truth. I find the frank comments to be the most helpful and compassionate. Apparently those heartless judges are the first after a long line of superficial, nice but meanningless comments such “good job” and “fantastic” from parents, friends and acquaintances leading up to the person humiliating themselves on TV.
When we replace truth and honesty with niceness, we show that we are more concerned with endearing ourselves to others than any sort of helpfulness.
NICE is myopic
Being nice to one person isn’t always showing courtesy to everyone else. Niceness is myopic in that it often disregards the greater good for the immediate pleasure of the here and now.
Have you ever been in the flow of traffic and had someone in the car in front of you stop suddenly to let another vehicle enter traffic thus causing you and 12 cars behind you to slam on your brakes and swerve? In LA traffic, such a nice maneuver can effect traffic for hours afterwards. I’m sure that that one “nice” driver will continue on for the rest of the day patting himself on the back for being so nice while completely oblivious to the chain reaction it caused. Right-of-way rules exist for a reason; they are more helpful to the greater good.
There’s a nice time and place
As a tactic, niceness certainly has an appropriate usage. But left to itself it is destructive. Overwhelming niceness lends itself to passive aggressive behavior.
Tardiness is the queen of passive aggressiveness. Have you ever heard of Mormon Standard Time? As the joke goes, you add about 15 minutes to the start time of any Mormon event because nice Mormons are also well-known for being chronically late. Of course it’s not everyone, but there is always at least one for whom everyone waits.
Aggressive acts are often framed by niceness in nice cultures. In one example, Margaret Toscano relates how her excommunication from the Mormon church involved an odd sense of vicious niceness.
They asked me to go out and then deliberated for about 20 minutes and then they brought me back in and one of the first things the Stake President said to me was, “I want you to know that the High Counsel was very impressed with you. However, you are excommunicated. We have found you to be an apostate.” And everybody got up and they all wanted to shake my hand. They’re cutting me off from eternal salvation and telling me that I’m this ‘apostate’ which really is considered very bad in Mormon culture and yet I’m this nice woman that they’re going to shake my hand. And this…that, that niceness… there’s something vicious about niceness that struck me in this. That the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action.
I’ve seen the same sort of behavior in very nice Mormons who have visited my blog and are horrified that I am sometimes not very nice. In these exchanges, I’m always accused of lying without ever detailing what I’ve lied about. Commenting like they do is a passive aggressive behavior. Their repressed anger comes out in a vitriolic comment. Funny that they’re not very nice when they accuse me of not being nice. There’s just an overall sense that my being not nice is the violation in and of itself. Once recently wrote:
This makes me sad to see you criticize the goodness of my church.
Goodness does not result from niceness. Goodness results from growth and progress.
Niceness, like obedience, stunts growth. It favors sin avoidance over repentance,and purity over holiness, blindness over sight. In this way, Nice is safe and keeps the infant inside all of us safe and in control.
Nice aint pretty
The irony for Americans is that niceness resembles a socialist, communistic construct more than we’d like to admit. Capitalism isn’t nice; communism is. It’s much nicer to imagine everyone in our society having enough and working together for the good of the whole. “To each their own” seems just mean. But as we all know, there are dizzying side effects that come from letting nice imagery and nice concepts overtake hard practicality and rugged individuality.
When niceness overtakes an organization it purges not only the uncorrelated and undesirable like myself, but also the capable and the creative. You’ll find, for example, that artists, intellectuals and innovators are often less nice than those who appreciate an organized, correlated construct. The creative folks are often seen as vulgar, progressive, irreverent and crass. But personal experience tells me they are interestingly often more trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, kind, and brave.
Jesus wasn’t nice
I’m not going to try and turn this into a Sunday School lesson, but I’ve read the New Testament several times and am certain that Jesus would more likely hang out with a Margaret Toscano or a Lady Gaga than a Thomas Monson or a Donny Osmond. Jesus wasn’t so nice to his parents who came looking for him at age 12, to the temple-workers he chewed out for exchanging money, to observers who looked down their noses at his wining and dining with sinners, nor to the pharisees who prized obedience over holiness. I just find that the people in the church I grew up in appear a lot more like the pharisees in Jesus’ time who value outward niceness over substantive closeness to God.
So, while I try to manage my niceness going forward with increased honesty, integrity, trustworthiness and compassion I’ll probably make a few people “sad” or “angry” or “disappointed.” That’s OK. I am being rewarded with deeper friendships and more peace in my life than ever before.
I wish the same for everyone (Isn’t that nice?).
- I Like Me ‘Some’ Mormonism (societyvs.wordpress.com)