Addicted To Nice

By Chris Churchill

If there's one thing people who know me know about me is that I'm a pretty reliably nice guy.

I do OK on the friend front. I make friends easily, partially because people tell me I’m very nice. I would like to think that most of my niceness is a conscious choice, but I'm not going to lie on purpose here. Sometimes I'm nice because it's the most convenient thing to be or because I'm scared or uncomfortable. I don't like that when I recognize that in myself. Being a hypocritical human, I hate it when I notice it in others. While I hope I'm not describing myself, I would like to call out those who are addicted to nice .

There are those who would rather smile and sing a Disney tune than discuss racial injustice. There are those who'd rather make an eye-rolling joke about the violence in Chicago's streets than make a concerted effort to discuss the policies, systems and humans that are both responsible for and affected by the violence. There are people who don't think family dinner is a good time to talk about these types of things. These things aren't nice.

You know what these nice addicts mean? They mean that discussing things that make them uncomfortable impinges on their right not to care about the world outside their home, cul-de-sac, parish, tribe or any other tiny world they've chosen to hide in.

I recently, as part of my work, found myself listening to an otherwise intelligent and sensitive 14-year-old suburban girl joke about a classmate “visiting Chicago” (as if were a distant jungle). She laughed and suggested to her friend “don't get shot.”  She thought it was pretty funny. Really, what she was doing was practicing a newly acquired humor tool, incredulity, to get her classmates’ approval. But she used a dehumanizing joke, the topic of which she had no real understanding of or experience in.

My gut reaction was to not allow her to believe that everyone agreed with her idea of a joke. First, I told her where most of the violence seemed to be concentrated and why, to the best of my knowledge, the violence started and perpetuates itself. Then I reminded her that these people that were getting shot were actual human beings whose lives deserved the same respect she would have offered up if someone in her safe neighborhood had been murdered. Then I apologized for starting that day's film camp with such a downer.

Do you know why I apologized? Because it was the nice thing to do. I wasn't wrong to tell her why on that particular morning, I was annoyed by her joke. My feelings are my feelings and her feelings are her feelings. However, there's a communication theory called the spiral of silence, which is, basically, the belief that people can be fooled by silence surrounding a topic they have brought up or are concerned with. A person might believe that if no one expresses dissent from an opinion then, obviously, no one disagrees with that opinion and, therefore, I'd better not express my dissent, and so on. The spiral of silence allows chasms to be created between groups of people. It allows unpopular leaders to rise to power. I didn't think it was a good idea to let that young lady continue to feel uncomfortable about my response to her joke.

So I apologized. Because I wanted to be nice to her.

There are other situations where nice is irresponsible. Laughing along with the racist joke so as not to start a whole thing with someone. Agreeing with your aunt’s religious zealotry because it's not really hurting anyone—at the moment anyway. Voting for someone because they seem like a nice person (my mother has admitted to doing this. We had a talk with her).

I've also seen niceness wielded as the weapon of the sociopath. A firm handshake, a smile and a look in the eye elicits the thought, “What a nice man” from many. Those handshakes always make me nervous. Maybe I'm a little paranoid, naturally. Maybe that's due to the primitive neglect I suffered as a baby. Maybe that topic isn't nice to bring up.

I don't trust it. Even though I myself am a nice guy, I don't trust nice people. What dark motive are they hiding? What injustice are they ignoring? Are they deflecting?

Nice can be nice. That’s obvious. But nice can also be poisonous, treacherous, deceitful and selfish. Nice can be a weapon of cognitive dissonance. “He seems like a nice man. Nice men aren’t evil. That nice man just did something evil.” Now, you have an internal struggle as you try to reconcile that in your brain. If that person was not nice, the cognitive dissonance wouldn’t occur. “He’s a jerk. I don’t like jerks. That jerk did something evil.”

See? It all checks out. Sometimes nice is a social weapon. Nice isn’t always nice.