Is there anything worn under the kilt? No, it's all in perfect working order.

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What’s Wrong With “Nice”?

April 17th, 2012 ~ Est. reading time: 2 mins, 19 secs

So you want me to be nice, huh?

Being nice seems harmless enough. So why is “nice” copping criticism? Kevin Daum, from The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, writes that nice people cause endless timewasting, promote low standards, and create a culture of failure. So how can being nice turn out to be so nasty?

According to Kevin, nice people’s tendency to focus on not wishing to offend and less on getting the job done is the culprit. That’s why Kevin celebrates being brutal with the truth. In his mind, you can’t be honest and kind at the same time.

I agree with Kevin that being genuine shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of being nice. He rightly points out that in sales, countless hours are lost pandering to people who never intend on buying but don’t want to offend. And what about co-workers who dare not reject proposals in case someone loses face? Even if a particular project is as useless as a screen door on a submarine, being nice can mistakenly take higher priority.

Yet, despite his appeal for directness, Kevin is missing something important. As social beings we value cooperation. That means we rely on standards of mutual support and respect. In practice, their expression varies enormously between nations, cultures, workplaces, and families.  That’s why a German’s directness won’t work so well in Indonesia. And, an Aussie’s joking familiarity falls flat in more formal settings. What passes for “nice” is very much a matter of custom.

Even the word “nice” has inherited various meanings. To be called “nice” in medieval times was to say someone was ignorant or thoughtless. While today, in some quarters, nice implies insincere politeness. One worker might pretend to be bootlickingly nice to his boss. Whilst another regards nice as being genuinely considerate, polite, and refined.

So how can we work well together, preserving good will and yet still being practical? Instead of feigning a nice exterior, I recommend honesty, respect, and kindness. Contrary to some people’s thinking, honesty isn’t rude if it’s backed by these qualities. When we know somebody cares about us, then honesty is a lot easier to digest. Actually, the problem is not being agreeable. It’s about people pretending to care when they’re don’t. Lack of regard is at the heart of most misunderstandings, both at work and family life.

Fanning the flames further is social incompetence, which inevitably makes an almighty mess (especially when people mistake their own frankness for fairness).  Having all the subtlety of a brick, these people typically objectify others as a way to get jobs done. For them, being nice is nonsense. This approach works but it’s damaging. Deep resentment, distrust, and anxiety are all part of the predictable fallout. In a workplace, it’s a key reason why people leave. At home, it’s one reason why relationships implode.

So is there an answer that works in all cultures, workplaces, and homes? Surely it’s not about being more brutally honest. I believe, the answer goes deeper and it’s found in character. Not only does character give “nice” some guts, it also promotes respectful truth. In the workplace, at home, and across the community, we want things to be better. Showing qualities of character not only help to overcome our conflicts, they give dignity to everything we achieve.


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