The Niceness Trap

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From a young age, children (especially girls) are taught to be nice. “Play nice.” “That’s not nice.” “Be a nice little girl.” I grew up with these admonishments, which were at odds with my frankness, my loudness, and my questioning nature. Consequently, I learned that my own thoughts and feelings, if not pleasant and polite, were to be hidden and even ashamed of.

Kindness is an invaluable trait. It involves thinking of others and sacrificing our own needs for another. Striving to be kinder is always a good thing. But niceness? Niceness is a social construct created to keep people, especially children, in order. The polite smile, the quiet folding of hands in laps, the crossed ankles.

I remember a high school friend who told me her first impression of me was that I was a goody two shoes. I would sit at my desk, knees pressed together and feet flat on the floor. I did not talk out of turn or laugh raucously with the other freshmen in my English class. What my friend Kathy did not know was that my behavior was the result of seven years in Catholic school, where only “nice” behavior was tolerated. Sure, I was a school teacher’s dream, but I didn’t allow my true self to emerge in public.

People who know me casually would probably describe me as “nice.” I greet people politely, don’t swear,  and converse with the  pleasantries society finds acceptable. Those who know me well realize I have an edge. I can be mean-spirited, feisty, sarcastic, and negative. Still, after all these years of being encouraged to be nice, I often find it hard to express my opinions for fear that others won’t like me.

I”m not advocating that we all go around spewing venom, scratching ourselves in public, or being obnoxious. But I do wish we as a society did not place such a premium on niceness. I have tried to raise my children to be considerate of others while also being true to themselves. This can be tricky and embarrassing. I myself caused much embarrassment to adult family members when I was a little girl because I would blurt out my honest thoughts in public: “Aunt Honey, that lady’s not too fat, is she?”

Sometimes there’s a fine line between honesty and cruelty. As my parish priest once urged, when you are about to say something, ask yourself these three questions:

Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

With those guidelines in mind, I hope to become a more authentic person. You may not think I’m “nice,” but I will always try to be kind.

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