When “nice” doesn’t cut it

Newsletter #15

When I started work and playing frisbee in Singapore, I realised everyone was nice. More importantly, I realised I wasn’t.

And that was a problem. I couldn’t relate to most people, and they often thought I was bossy, intimidating, overbearing and simply too much. I realised that if I wanted to work and play better with people, I had to learn to be nice. 

What I mean by “nice”

Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see a thing for what it is. As an alien to niceness, I interpreted nice as being agreeable, polite and inoffensive.

To achieve this, I mimicked what I thought was nice behaviour, and kept doing it till it felt natural. 

I mastered niceness. Kinda.

It took awhile. Years, actually. But I achieved what I wanted.

A friend’s girlfriend recently remarked that I was so polite and nice all the time. I don’t think my friends agreed, and I don’t think I’ll ever be as nice as someone who grew up that way. Regardless, I count that as a win!

Unfortunately, I realise that niceness comes with a downside.  

I feel like my friendships have gotten lame.

My friends and I dispense niceties, while carefully tiptoeing around landmines. Unfortunately, platitudes are as toxic as they are intoxicating. It’s easy to feel like we’re all getting along, only to later realise that I have no idea how my friends are actually doing. 

Likewise, when I’m asked about how I’m doing, I tend to say vague but positive things. Unsurprisingly, It’s easier to sound like a greeting card than it is to construct sentences that actually describe my wellbeing.

This mode of operating also lets everyone off the hook from actually listening. If both sides stick to pleasantries, then neither party misses much if they zone out. This is junk food conversation at its best – all the sugar, none of the nutrition.  

I’ve also missed out on opportunities at work.

I kept opinions to myself, and chose to “be nice”. There were times when I could’ve taken charge, but instead I failed to speak up.

All of this prevented things from moving forward, which resulted in a waste of time, money and opportunity. 

As it turns out, nice is too neutral, and not great for deep friendships or progress at work.

So, if nice is ineffective, where do we go from here? 

This year, I’m stepping up without stepping on toes

The reality is that we’re not limited to “nice” and “aggressive asshole”. There are ways to say what I think, even when it’s hurtful. Specifically, it’s possible to say truthful things empathetically, kindly and respectfully. And that’s what I’m stepping up to the plate to do. 

Stepping up also means standing out. It opens me up to criticism and puts me at the mercy of others, and it’s scary to do so. I believe this is a large part of the reason many people (myself included) choose to be nice instead.

While being vulnerable is scary, I choose not to discount the people I interact with. I’m going to trust that the other parties see the earnestness and good intent, and act accordingly.

Finally, there will definitely be times when I simply need to be more aggressive. Family feuds aside, I’m not great at this. I usually cave rather than stand firm, even when I know I’m right. I’ll be working on this in 2020 as well. 

“Not retreating to niceness” isn’t exactly my resolution for the year (I don’t have one). But it’s one of many good attitudes I hope to adopt that will hopefully help me lead a better and more effective life. 

Let me know what you think of this un-nice pursuit. And definitely let me know if you decide to try it too. 


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