How to Be Nice (Without Being a Pushover)

We live in an age of snark. Meanness is celebrated as wit. Vicious attack is considered brave honesty.

Niceness, the apologists for this current state of affairs claim, is an inferior virtue. Truth is what matters. Those who refuse to listen to harsh truths are really to blame. Or perhaps it’s confidence and strength which matter more. People who put niceness first end up putting themselves last.

I disagree.

Not only is niceness a sorely underrated virtue, it is the exact one needed in our times.

Niceness complements truth-telling. Harsh honesty doesn’t convert believers—it galvanizes opponents and turns the open-minded quest for truth into mud slinging.

Being nice doesn’t make you weak. Instead it wins you allies and builds trust. Benjamin Franklin, as a young boy, quickly discovered he won more arguments with probing questions than direct refutation. Laozi wrote in the Dao De Jing, that the wise path was to return hostility with benevolence.

The Underrated Virtue of Niceness

Often a failure to be nice is really a failure of social skills. Those who can’t understand how their words and actions don’t create the desired effect in others’ minds, quickly rationalize their own failure onto the “thin skin” of other people.

I myself have failed this way numerous times. An unfunny joke, insensitive comment or failure to listen have resulted in seeming rude.

That’s okay. One can recognize that their abilities prevent them from always reaching an ideal, while still believing that the ideal is worth reaching. The person who strives to be nice, even if their efforts aren’t always successful, will do much better in the long run than the person who has decided to reject the effort.

With that in mind, here’s some strategies you can apply to help you on your quest to be a nicer person:

1. You Earn Respect By Giving It

One of the best lessons ever taught to me was that people respect those who respect them.

This may sound obvious, until you realize that a large percentage of people in this world actually believe the opposite. Many people believe in a hierarchical model of respect—where earning one person’s respect can only come from them recognizing your higher status. If you show respect, you’re showing your inferiority.

This is simply not how the world works. Human beings, first and foremost, are trying to assess whether someone is a friend or enemy in their interactions. Rudeness doesn’t win begrudging respect. It encourages that person to see you as hostile.

Find something to respect in the other person you’re talking to. This is especially true if you later want to disagree with them or challenge their opinion.

2. Return Rudeness with Kindness

I’ve gotten a lot of emails. Most people are positive, but sometimes I’ve been hit with mean and rude comments.
My strategy has often been to respond to that rudeness with an unflinching politeness. In 90% of cases, the person upon seeing my response, apologizes for their earlier outburst.

When I’ve failed to follow this approach—either by debating the comment or attacking back—my success rates plummet. The other person doubles-down on whatever made them angry in the moment and it’s impossible to recover a pleasant dialog.

How many vitriolic arguments could be defused with this strategy? How much anger could be spared if there was a safety margin of niceness before hatred was returned in kind?

3. Practice Listening

Most of social skill is listening, not speaking. Those who have charisma do so because of their ability to make you feel listened to, not simply talked at.

Everyone has their own story they tell themselves. Listening means trying to really understand the story that person tells themselves—even if it is not the story you would tell about them.

The worst offense you can cause a person is to reject their narrative. To tell them that the story they tell themselves is invalid, and thus everything the feel and believe is wrong.

Listening doesn’t necessitate agreement. But most disagreements aren’t caused by deeply understanding the story a person tells about themselves and then rejecting it. They’re caused by rejecting the person’s story, before you’ve even had a chance to listen.

4. Know Your Forum

Will your audience find it funny or offensive? Intelligent or cruel and calculating? Helpful or threatening? Much of niceness is understanding who is going to hear your message.

This is much easier to do with people you know better. Which is also why edgy jokes and friendly insults work—they signal that you know the audience well enough to pull it off without causing offense.

Some people don’t like this. They wish forums were more open to free expression, and less restricted by what some people might view as nice. I’m sympathetic to this view, but I believe the reality doesn’t match the theory so well. In practice, forums which discourage niceness aren’t utopia of free expression: they’re vile pits of hatred and attack. Only with some shared standards of discussion is discussion even possible.

Ultimately, I believe the best thing to protect free speech is a kind of niceness. Not to shelter people from ideas they don’t want to hear, but to avoid driving away civil discussion with unfiltered nastiness.

5. Ask for Honest Assessments From Those You Trust

If you’re serious about being a nicer, more likeable person, ask those you trust what your flaws are.

Knowing is only the first step, but it’s an important one. If you don’t know what your flaws are, then you can’t possibly correct them.

It’s strange to me that in a world where people will invest thousands of hours to get six-pack abs, advanced degrees and fancy cars—so that people will like and respect them—that feedback into the most direct solution is so rarely sought.

6. If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

…find a nicer way to say it. The great advantage of human language is that the literal content of almost any message can be delivered with a wide range of emotional tone—from hostile to apologetic.

If you need to give a harsh truth, criticism or something which might be perceived as an attack, then it is best to wrap that message first with one which affirms the value of your relationship to the person receiving it.

Too many people see this step as being insincere or unnecessary in our age of rapid communication. Why can’t I just skip the pleasantries and communicate more efficiently? While it might be easier if this were true, this policy is going to end up causing more harm than it is worth by alienating those who want to help you.

7. If Your Niceness is Being Abused, Be Firm, Not Nasty

The major worry people have about niceness is that it will be taken advantage of. This, in my mind, is a rather separate issue of conflating niceness with always acquiescing to the desires of other people. You can be nice and still say no.

People like to use this as a knockdown critique against niceness, without realizing that the same principle undermines every form of human goodness: from charity to justice. If the other party is a cheater, acting in bad faith, then of course they can take advantage of your virtues. The solution isn’t to abandon virtue but be firm with the cheater.

Firmness—either by removing the offending person from your sphere of contact, or by choosing to interact with them in the most limiting manner possible—is a much better solution than to go for the attack. Wars, both real and metaphorical, cause damage for both sides, and so peace between enemies is almost always preferable to outright confrontation.

The Niceness is in the Details

Ultimately, no virtue is so all-encompassing that, done excessively and with the wrong intentions, it cannot end up becoming a vice. Excessive flattery, inauthenticity of emotional responses, monotone positivity and supplicating smarm are all ways where otherwise legitimately “nice” behavior can become a liability.

However, this is also true of any other virtue: honesty, thrift, industry, courage, humility or charity. It doesn’t take a philosopher to find cases where those ideals can be twisted into applications no one would support.

This is just another way of saying that reality is complex, and sometimes single-word descriptions of virtue are inadequate to cover that reality. But the failure of certain perversions of niceness doesn’t detract from the fact that being a nicer person is usually beneficial both to you, and to the world at large.

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