About a dozen years ago, I participated heavily on a message board for people with mental health issues. I made a lot of good friends there, and I felt comfortable, like I had a place. And then another Mormon appeared. Since we shared a religious background, of course we ended up talking a lot to each other. But something went wrong. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what happened, except that I know that she inadvertently pushed a lot of my buttons with the way she approached things; unsurprisingly, she was much more orthodox than I was, and tended to talk in terms of how sad it was that others on the board didn’t have the crystal clear truth that we did.
But I think we could have agreed to disagree. Except that we didn’t, because I found myself unable to say flat out where I disagreed, and why I was having a hard time with her. Because I wanted to be nice, and that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Instead I got cold and distant and acted somewhat passive aggressive, all the while denying that I had any negative feelings. Eventually it all blew up and she left the board, specifically because of me. I still have a lot of regret when I think about the way I handled that situation, and how much she got hurt.
My desire to be nice has gotten me into all kinds of trouble. One of my closest friends and I met as roommates, and our mutual tendencies to be conflict-avoidant did not serve us well. We got ensnared in a lot of unspoken conflict before we finally had to do the hard work of honestly talking things out—which meant giving up on niceness, because it wasn’t helping our communication.
And still, I want to be nice. Even more, I have to admit, I want to be seen as nice. This is not a trait that I particularly admire in myself. But it’s definitely there. And there can be a wide gap between the image I want to maintain, and the reality that sometimes I can really be a jerk. It creates a lot of dissonance.
So it turns out that I’m not so sure about the virtue of being nice. The specter of niceness has plagued me for a long time; I grew up seeing it as the expectation of a good Mormon woman. But I’ve come to have my doubts that it’s emotionally or spiritually healthy. Niceness undermines honesty, the ability to set boundaries or be assertive when necessary. I think it actually undermines genuine connections between people.
Perhaps a better term for what I’m seeking is “kind.” When I’ve acted unkindly, that’s a problem worth addressing—and not because I violated the niceness code. When I think of things in that way, I notice, my focus is more on genuine regret for unkind actions, and a desire to act differently in the future—as opposed to what people will think of me (because, horror of horrors, I failed to be nice!)
So dang it all, enough with the niceness already!
(But I hope you think this post is sufficiently nice.)