Zelophehad’s Daughters

Being Nice

Posted by Lynnette

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.)

8 Responses to “Being Nice”

  1. 1.

    I enjoyed this. I had a professor once say, “Some of the worst people I know are ‘nice’.”

  2. 2.

    Kind is where it’s at. And your post was kind :) to those you’ve interacted with, and to yourself, which is at least as important

  3. 3.

    Great post, Lynnette. I think this is an excellent point. I have a really hard time with this very same issue (which might come as a surprise to anyone who only sees my snarky online comments :) ).

    “Niceness undermines honesty, the ability to set boundaries or be assertive when necessary.”

    Regarding this last point, I think this is what bugs me so much about this well-known comment from Margaret D. Nadauld when she was General YW President:

    “The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined.”

    This wasn’t her intent (I hope!), but YW taking her advice were sure to be nice at the expense of being assertive and setting proper boundaries when necessary. In other words, she was setting them up to be taken advantage of in all kinds of ways.

    Of course, it’s not President Nadauld alone. Mormon culture appears to place great emphasis on niceness, particularly for women. She was just reflecting that culture, not creating it.

  4. 4.

    I’m pretty much nice and kind. It isn’t really a problem for me because I’m not faking it. I am extremely honest.
    So pretending to be nice/kind isn’t good. Acting nice but not being nice isn’t good or helpful.
    I am nice but I also speak up and speak my mind. I also draw lines.
    Perhaps I find other ways to avoid conflict? Maybe that is why I don’t have conflicts with people. I have never fought with a friend ever. But maybe because I don’t get close enough to get upset? Or maybe it is because I am understanding when they have a different opinion?
    I just can’t imagine acting like someone this totally ok but really it isn’t. Because I am kind and I would be understanding if there was a problem. But if someone were evil and didn’t show enough respect I wouldn’t spend time with them. I can draw boundaries.
    I am always nice to my MIL, and try to be kind and loving. That doesn’t mean I open up about everything. I am nice to my sister that I don’t want to be around much, but I simply don’t instigate a close relationship with her because she makes me uncomfortable and she is toxic.

    So I guess I feel like BEING NICE or BEING KIND is good. And being kind doesn’t include being a doormat. I think it is the ACTING NICE but not being able to back it up with kind feelings underneath that is bad.

  5. 5.

    Ziff I was a young woman when Pres Nadauld gave that talk and it inspired my friends and I to find power in virtue, not to “be nice” to our own detriment.

    That being said it can be tempting to seek a virtuous appearance out of vanity instead of being genuine in seeking to BE virtuous.

  6. 6.

    That’s really interesting, Em C, and encouraging that you were able to get a good message out of it, but it’s pretty clear that she was arguing that it was important for YW to learn to be passive and not to be strong.

  7. 7.

    I had a boss at work who was always very blunt. He was not nice in the conventional sense. But I really liked him, because you always knew where you stood, you did not have to guess, you did not have to wonder if he had some hidden ulterior motive for his actions. It also meant that his praise felt more genuine. I think this worked for him at least in part because he tended to be very fair, not playing favorites.

    I’m working on this, recognizing that I’m not always doing my friends and family a favor by not sharing with them things that they do that are distressing to me. I do think there’s a right way to do this, and it definitely involves confronting myself first to see what I need to change, but I feel it can be a more Christlike way of being, if done right.

  8. 8.

    Gutsy post and interesting comments. I agree with parts of what has been said, but (politely) disagree with others.

    I do agree it is important to be authentic in whatever we do. We are not counseled to try to be nice, but rather to be Christlike. Niceness may be a side-effect.

    As for Sister Nadauld’s talk, I heard that as more a criticism of the notion that women have to “twice as tough as men” to succeed in a man’s world, something I heard a lot in the 70s and 80s. I heard her encouraging a different way to be strong. If the only way to be “strong” is to be tough, coarse, and rude, then admittedly she would be encouraging not to. But that is giving in to a male-normative view. We can choose a Christ-normative view of strength instead.

    As for being “passive” as an ideal, I personally haven’t seen that encouraged anywhere in the church. Past RS prez Julie Beck told many stories about how the brethren encouraged her to voice her own opinion, as did former YW president Ardeth Kapp (her BYU talk on “Working in Harmony with Priesthood,” for example). And that has been my experience in local councils as well.

    In a sense, I do agree with Ziff that being nice might make us vulnerable to some forms of abuse. But as always, we should avoid blaming the victim.

    At bullyonline.org, run by a foundation that deals with workplace bullying, it says, “Targets of bullying have no interest in power or exercising power. They go to work to work and they are not interested in office politics or conflict. Targets of bullying have high moral values, a well-developed integrity, …a strong sense of fair play and reasonableness, a low propensity to violence, a reluctance to pursue grievance, disciplinary or legal action, a strong forgiving streak and a mature understanding of the need to resolve conflict with dialogue. Weak people disingenuously confuse these hallmarks of character with weakness.”

    That describes a lot of LDS of either gender. However, when I was a target of bullying, my co-workers just said, “You’re too nice.” Although nobody could advise how to change her unreasonable behavior.

    Yes, we should all be appropriately assertive, set limits, and not put up with abuse (I left for a better job).

    But I am glad that I was true to who I am, and did not get sucked into playing her games. That would not have been spiritually or emotionally healthy, either, and I doubt I could ever have pleased her once her mind was made up. As the OP pointed out, trying to please others is a no-win.

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