Personal Essay

What’s so bad about being nice?

By Scott Ross

“Nice” is now considered an overused, some would say ambiguous, word. I don’t mean “nice” as a substitute for “I can’t think of anything to add to your anecdote but I have to punctuate it with something” or because you don’t want to say what you’re actually thinking, or as a buzzword for everything teenagers think is impressive. I’m referring to “nice” as an adjective to describe another human being. Perhaps a case can be made that it is too indistinct, and too (to employ another meaning of the word) wanton in its overuse. And it may well be that I am merely over-sensitive to my own paucity of verbal imagination. But there a many people of whom I am very fond, and toward whom my use of the word does not seem — and is certainly not meant as— pejorative.

The men and women I think of, and describe as “nice,” are amiable, pleasant, agreeable, thoughtful, goodhearted and good-natured. They are courteous, they’re polite, they’re warm, they’re friendly. They have, and exhibit, tact and grace. Above all they are kind. Kind when they needn’t be expected to exhibit kindness; kind in the face of rudeness, thoughtless, and indifference. Kind to everyone equally. They are not fools, although “foolish” is another definition of “nice.”

Perhaps the fault lies less with the word itself than with the world we have made around it. In a culture — and I can only speak of America as it is the only culture I know intimately — that has become increasingly crass, loud, obnoxious, rude, thoughtless and aggressive, perhaps it’s the qualities that make one “nice” are themselves undervalued rather than the word itself.

Mind you, I am not referring to phoniness masquerading as decency. My bitter conclusion concerning many, if not most, ardent Jesus Christers after a lifetime of observation, is that they behave in ways they believe to be proper out of a basic terror that they will deny themselves a Heavenly reward, whereas most atheists perform good works merely because doing so is right and honorable and humane in itself. No further recompense is necessary. The same may be said, in my experience, of many devout Jews.

No, I mean those people one knows, considers friends, is related to, works with, or merely chances upon, often behind the counters of one’s neighborhood grocery store, who are simply and genuinely nice. Who would no sooner think of pushing you down in order to be the first in the door at a WalMart Black Friday sales event than they would of whacking their aged mothers across the back of the head with a ball-peen hammer. Some believe that manners are love. Audrey Hepburn’s mother, the Baroness Heemstra, impressed upon her daughter that manners were a kindness.

If it was good enough for Audrey Hepburn…

A paradigm: One afternoon this past summer I walked into a waiting elevator at my place of employment. Understand that in our elevators, as in most these days, are two sets of floor buttons, one on either side of the doors. As I was standing to the left and punching the button for my floor, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman hurried forward from the lobby. I held the door for her. She did not say “Thank you.” What she did say, as she entered the car and stood on the right side of it, was, “Fourth floor, please.”

I replied, as pleasantly as I could, “There’s a set of buttons on your side.”

She snorted an incredulous laugh. She was, obviously, taken aback that anyone would speak to her that way — that a mere peon would react to her imperious commands in any way other than to obey them.

Yes, I know: I could have pushed the button on my side for her. And had she asked me nicely (that word again) I might have done so, and then pointed out, politely, the set of buttons in front of her, on her side of the car. Understand that she was carrying nothing. Her hands were free. She was not in any way physically debilitated. Had she been overburdened with packages or briefcases or binders, or been pulling one of those wheeled suitcase-carrier thingies, I certainly would have pushed that button. What she was, I suspect (in common with all too many people in our building these days) was a Republican appointee who assumes that lowly, under-dressed, non-aligned State workers such as myself are not worth wasting consideration on. They won the election. They’re in charge now, thank you. Why should they be expected to be nice on top of that? And why shouldn’t they be able to call out their floors and expect us to fall all over ourselves to push their goddamn elevator buttons?

What I did not do — much as I desperately wanted to — was point out to this harpy that if she looked she might notice I was not wearing a braided uniform and a cute little bellboy’s cap. That her manners were appalling. That I was not in the building to be ordered about merely because she was better dressed, and better-heeled, than I, and worked on a higher floor. And that she might, if she possibly could, take a few moments out of her busy day and contemplate what was, to her, the clearly alien concept of common civility. I did not say, as I wished to, “I don’t care who got you your sinecure, lady. I’m not your trained monkey.” But I didn’t do her snottily commanded bidding either.

I think I’m fairly nice. But I’m not that nice.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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