Which is worse – to be artificially nice or to be genuinely mean? Actually, I prefer to be genuinely nice. Besides, being artificially mean just makes people end up looking like a tiny puppy growling against a ferocious lion: surprising and fiesty at first, and then just stupid.
I have mixed feelings about being nice (Is nice a feeling? Can you have feelings about feelings? Can I be suspicious of my suspicion?).
On the one hand, I find it tremendously important to be kind, communicate with my family and friends with sincere care, model kindness to my son, and put myself in someone’s shoes in order to show care and compassion because that’s what I’d like to be shown. I carry proudly the nickname “Minnesota Nice,” and abide by the Golden Rule whenever it occurs to me that I should do this. Two of the most difficult moments in my adolescence were when I was falsely accused of doing something mean. It cut to the core to have people think I was capable of meanness, lying, and intentional attack. As a grown-up, I have found that being nice to students is more likely to yield good dialogue and enhanced learning than being mean. I come from a long line of people who think hospitality is a great virtue, and the greatest gift you can give someone (and yourself) is to know that people have felt they have been treated with kindness. Kindness is respect. Be nice. Work hard. And sometimes, work hard at being nice.
I have been taught and I believe in an ethos of community building that is grounded in respect. I have found myself physically ill at the behaviors and spoken and written words that have come out of some people’s mouths for the sake of calling attention to problems – not the calling attention itself, but the way the attention is called or the frequency with which it is called. It makes me sad when people hurt, and words can hurt. They have hurt me. They have devastated people I know and love. They are easy to spout, they are often based on incomplete information, and they are hard to take back. My entire set of research and personal ethics standards are based on compassion and doing as little harm as possible, precisely because I’ve seen and felt the damage that unkindness can yield. In no uncertain terms, then, I think it’s important to be nice to people.
This version of my ethics falters when viewed in other parts of my story. Nobody can be nice all the time, except maybe the guy who works at our local UPS store (seriously, I have no idea how I can leave that store happy every time, when all we’ve discussed is how many days I want a package to take to arrive safely at my in-laws’ house). Ever since I can remember, my dad repeated to me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.” This was a man whose most stunning display of angered curse words was a monotone “Oh bunk” after breaking his toe, a tone that probably stemmed from early medical trauma, uneducated immigrant parents, and an unfaltering sense of gratitude just to be able to walk, talk, and hear out of one ear. Starting around age 13, when most of what my dad said to me began being increasingly classified in the “ugh, Dad is so weird” rhetorical category, I responded to his recitation with “I think you’re wrong. I think you can say something that is not nice if it helps the person. In fact, I believe I am doing that now. But telling you you’re wrong is not necessarily being unkind.” I carry with me pride in my ability to be direct when I need to be, and it started during that conversation. It can save time. Just think about all of those Minnesotans who say “no” three times when asked if they want that last piece of tator tot hotdish in order to be nice. If people just said, “sure, I’ll take it” when they wanted it, everyone would just know what’s what. It may not be as (unnaturally?) nice, and it could lead to three months of rural-Midwest quiet hotdish resentment, but it does less damage in the long run because it’s honest and direct. Plus, if I was always nice and never said anything critical and kept quiet to ensure everything was all hunky-dory, I’m certain some of the sexist crap that I’ve experienced in my life would have persisted.
I never asked my dad whether he agreed with me in the end about my claim that being critical can be helpful, and therefore (oddly) a nice thing to do, probably because I didn’t want him to say, “Oh bunk, Michelle, I disagree.” But I think he would have found it to be a pretty reasonable claim. As long as I said thank you after I proposed it, and didn’t support any unsupportable meanness in myself or any other human beings.
Besides occasional misrepresentations of Midwestern holiday recipes in social media outlets, there are troubling news headlines in our midst. Headlines that show fear, inequality, anger, misrepresentation, and breathlessness. Many instances that call for criticism. Not many nice people. Not easy to take a side without some not-niceness to someone you know or love. Lots of silence because it just feels like the nicest thing to do.
Because of all sorts of reasons that classify me in the “decent life chances” category of life (secure job, white, old-ish, sometimes smart, tall, safe, well-networked, able to express whatever I want without fear of losing my job), I am in a privileged position to be able to choose whether to be nice, whether to evaluate others’ niceness, and whether to classify not-niceness as necessary if the circumstances align with my own political beliefs. Sometimes I’m not nice, and I spend some time managing that wake (and my nice-socialization has trained me to have a very low threshold of what constitutes a need to manage a wake). I know my friends would probably classify me as the nice version of direct. No death matches or “Dance Moms” for me or I’d run into a corner and cry. But I have honed a bit of passive aggression, as well as the more direct high pitched holler that I learned from various matriarchs in my family, a holler that usually comes out because I’m stressed or strained and the only thing that there’s room for in my psyche is a loud raspy voice that says “all of you people need to just shut up and pick up your stupid socks that are all over the floor!” And here’s the interesting part: sometimes the people I want to shut up the most are the ones who are saying we need to be not-nice precisely because people do not have equal access to the privilege of choosing niceness. Nice paradox. Head spinning. Nobody wants to have their own privilege revealed.
The point is, even if I don’t want to hear it, if I wanted to be not-nice, I could be, and it wouldn’t really be attached to my life chances (except maybe the fun likelihood for women to be labeled as hysterical or bossy when they’re just giving directions for how to get to the interstate in the most direct manner, dammit). For the most part, I can afford to vacation in the land of naughty, because it never disrupts my nice privilege. I have what Bourdieu would have called “nice capital.” How Santa would classify it I’m not sure, but I know I’d likely end up with a present that may be a little smudged with coal, rather than a lump of coal itself. And it wouldn’t have anything to do with an empirical calculation of my inherent niceness.
After all of this wrestling, will I still teach my son to be nice? Absolutely. You can take the girl out of Minnesota, but, despite my revision of my dad’s mantra, you can’t take the Minnesota completely out of the girl. Will being nice help my son in his life? Perhaps, depending on how much he thinks others’ views of him matters. Will being nice make him happy? Maybe, depending on what he figures out brings him happiness. Is a better question to ask whether I ought to teach him the ability to understand privilege so that he is able to enter any friendship or loving interaction with understanding that niceness is judged differentially based on qualities over which we have little control? Yes.
What I learn from my son the most, which is what I think my dad was always trying to say, is that the best way to love is to try to understand what someone’s circumstances are before you evaluate them as naughty or nice.
Nice going kid.