I Am Not Nice

July 16, 2009

Over the years I’ve been accused of being nice. I used to feel very worried when I heard that, thinking that somehow I had misrepresented myself and given people the wrong impression. Don’t blame me, I would think. I didn’t do anything to give you that idea. I figured that comments like that came from people who had only seen a little bit of me trying to put my best foot forward, or were simply too hasty in their judgment.

You see, I’m critical and cynical. I get frustrated and annoyed pretty easily. I’m unsure about a lot of things, but when I know something for sure, I believe it strongly. My sense of humor runs a little dark and quirky, and it means I laugh at things that other people think are solemn. I inherited my grandmother’s sense of honesty—if it’s true it can be said. I used to think I was blunt until business motivation experts taught me the phrase “boldly honest” instead.

So I used to worry when people would call me nice. I was sure that the truth would come out “sooner rather than later” and I would be exposed as a fraud. I would become the group pariah. Don’t get me wrong here. Being a pariah wasn’t my greatest fear, as you can imagine for someone who has a twisted sense of humor and tends to speak his mind too freely. I was worried about being considered a fraud, someone who represented himself as much better, much more pleasant—much “nicer”—than he really was.

I’ve gotten into arguments (the spoken, conversational style with modulated voices, not the yelling and slamming doors type) with people who said I was nice. I tried to debate them and prove how wrong they were. I would use “boldly honest” comments as evidence, which they would label “truthful.” I would point out my twisted humor and they would say I was “funny.” Each such conversation validated my own belief that the quality of a person is deeper than appearances and that the most interesting and most worthwhile aspects of a person are substantive and unique, not pleasant and agreeable. I realized I wasn’t the only person who preferred people with depth and strength and an interesting viewpoint over the “nice” people favored by an overwhelming majority (easily more than four out of five dentists surveyed).

Don’t get me wrong here. The idea of “nice” is, well—nice. But I have been disillusioned, discouraged, and disappointed by “nice” people too many times. I’ve seen people in groups congregate around the “nice” couple and heard the praise heaped on them. But when tough times come along for a group member the “nice” people pull back. They aren’t the ones offering help and encouragement. Instead they’re gossiping about personal failure and thanking God out loud that it’s not their family who are struggling, all the while explaining how it’s their own superior actions (and not really God at all) that explain why they will NEVER be in such a tough spot.

They know the rules of propriety and decorum. Heck, they helped update them at the committee meeting last year. They have the smiles that don’t spread any deeper than the skin on their faces, the kind that look like they’re practiced in a mirror. They make great eye contact when they talk to you. They squint their eyes in feigned interest when they ask about your family. The women pat your shoulder and the men purse their lips and give good firm handshakes. They’re the Stepford neighbors.

I’ve seen it in group after group, in lots of different settings. They’re the successful people that everyone else admires, the kind that make it easy to feel inferior. And there’s this unspoken understanding that they feel really good about how well they follow the rules of society, and they think a little shame on your part might be a good motivator.

Plenty of times I’ve seen that adversity sheds light on what’s really going on. If something bad is happening to their family, they make comments that mean, “This wasn’t supposed to happen to us. We’ve done everything right.” They’re far more worried about other people discovering their flaws than actually fixing them. A child or spouse’s struggle causes personal embarrassment for them, and is therefore unforgivable.

Their rule is simple: If you pretend with them that they and their family are models of good citizenship they will like you, especially if you are as pleasant and non-unique as they are. If you challenge their presentation to the world—if you say the Emperor has no clothes—you are exiled and become fodder for gossip.

I no longer look up to “nice” people and I am no longer drawn to them. I look instead for people with genuinely likeable qualities that take a little longer to be revealed. I consider people with these qualities to be kind, and I prefer kind over nice every day. I strive to express these qualities in my own life. I fall short most of the time, for I am a very flawed person.

I work on forgiving those people who accused me of being “nice.” Hopefully they meant they saw little hints of kindness. I’m positive that if they meant that falsely pleasant go-along-to-get-along nonsense, they found out pretty quickly—that’s not me!

The qualities that I value in others and seek to develop and express in myself are qualities I seek to express in my career. They are the core values of my business:

• Integrity
• Respect
• Responsibility
• Honesty
• Justice
• Humility
• Compassion
• Forgiveness
• Mercy
• Grace
• Restoration
• Kindness

And I have a long, long way to go before I can claim to be faithful to them.

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