Never take the last cookie. Avoid drama. Never tell people they are wrong. Wait for people to notice what you need. Smile at strangers.
We have lots of rules about how to be nice, how to be liked. The details vary in each community, which can be surprising when you move to a new town. Generally, women face higher pressure to be nice and higher penalties for failing to be nice.
Smooth the way
Nice can be kind, respectful, courteous, helpful, patient, and considerate. It can also be waiting endlessly for our turn to speak and allowing ourselves to be interrupted without protest. It can be watching others take credit for our successful ideas and shift blame onto us for their mistakes. Nice means doing the emotional labor to smooth the way for everyone else.
Nice means not making other people feel bad, even though we cannot control what someone else feels. Nice means not being too smart or capable, in case that makes someone else feel small. Nice means not stretching to our full capacity, physically or metaphorically. Nice means not taking up too much space.
Nice people do not express boundaries, preferences, or needs. Asking for accommodation for sensitivities or other disabilities might inconvenience someone else. Even when we express boundaries, nice people definitely do not enforce them. People deserve more chances! After all, we are not perfect ourselves.
Nice people think positive thoughts about others, even in the face of mounting negative effects. In particular, nice people do not report abuse. Nice people do not even think of it as abuse, but rather wonder what they might have done to cause someone to treat them that way.
Nice means using up every bit of your energy and strength and time trying to make that job or relationship or living situation work, and then being blamed for being exhausted and stressed. Nice means not being affected by past trauma, not letting on that you need treatment and care.
Above all, nice people do not get angry, frustrated, irritable, grumpy, or in any way unpleasant to be around. Nice people do not take up other people’s time with their gripes, nor get annoyed when they are treated badly.
Nice smiles uncomfortably at that racist or sexist joke rather than saying, “Wow,” or “Hey, that’s not funny,” because speaking up would cause drama. It is not nice to confront bigotry.
Welcomed and included
Nice does have its rewards. Nice people are welcomed and included just about everywhere. Nice people fit in, and get to feel good enough and “normal.” We grieve for the consequences of not being nice enough, for our inability to fold ourselves small enough to fit into that box.
Abuse survivors often struggle with feeling like a terrible person, or like something is terribly wrong inside. Being nice can feel like an essential mask for that (illusory) inner badness. The Inner Critic or a whole internal committee can enforce niceness by cruelly criticizing any non-nice behavior.
Survivors can also struggle with a sense of not deserving anything, so it is very hard to endure pushback for asserting needs or boundaries. Any conflict can feel dangerous, even when it is a normal part of negotiating competing needs.
Speak truth kindly
Rather than following strict rules to be nice, we can find ways to speak our truth kindly. Kindness can set boundaries, assert preferences, and ask for what we need while remaining aware of the impact on others. It takes ongoing work to discern kind actions in complicated, conflicted situations. If we feel a healthy entitlement to get our needs met, it is easier to navigate environments where we receive criticism for not being nice enough.
Embrace difficult qualities
When we choose to speak out, it can be painful to hear that we are rude, harsh, selfish, critical, mean, difficult, judgmental, or scary. Since we all contain all qualities, we can work with owning the qualities that sting the most. “Yes, I can be harsh sometimes.” Remember that you contain the opposite, too. “Sometimes I am gentle.” Look for examples of both, in yourself and others.
Hold yourself and your qualities with compassion. Those accusatory words carry gifts. Rude can be direct. Judgmental can be discerning. Selfish can be self-protective.
Open the trap
When our needs are not being met, the requirement to be nice can create a trap where we feel that either we have to accept the situation exactly as it is, or we have to leave the situation behind completely. When we are willing to be seen as harsh or difficult, we have more room to discern our needs and take steps toward meeting them, including asking others for changes. This opens space for the situation to improve gradually or end more gently.
Unfortunately, women in leadership positions experience the double bind of being judged as too abrasive and confrontational for their leadership qualities of strength, directness, decisiveness, and competence, or they are judged as too nice and thus not leadership material.
Power of authenticity
Being nice has the benefit of social approval and the perils of doing a lot of emotional labor and still not getting our needs met. When we do not constrain ourselves to be nice, we can step into the power of showing up as our authentic selves. Over time, we learn to wield that power kindly and creatively.
- Rick Carson’s book Taming Your Gremlin talks about ways to get closer to the natural you, including not getting too caught up in your “pleasant person act.”
- Yonatan Zunger’s article “Tolerance is not a moral precept” explains that tolerance is part of being nice, but that cannot be extended to tolerating intolerance.
- Ann Weiser Cornell’s article “Radical Gentleness: The Transformation of the Inner Critic” gives practical suggestions and examples to work with internal judgmental voices.