Evelyn Sommers, Ph.D Psychologist
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Why we should exorcise the curse of being ‘nice’
The Vancouver Sun, July 16, 2005

By Douglas Todd

“He’s a nice guy.”
“She’s a nice person.”

It normally feels like a compliment to be deemed “nice.” But sometimes being labeled “nice” can feel like a veiled criticism.

On the surface, it seems like a good thing to be nice. Yet often, when a man or woman is described this way, you wait for the other shoe to drop “He/she’s nice, but …”

Canadians are often called “nice” people. It could be worse: We could be stereotyped, like some of our American neighbours, as “aggressive” or “bullying.” And, in general, it’s definitely not great to be considered a “creep.”

Yet there remains a sense that “nice” is a double-edged word of praise, because sometimes it seems close to being called “timid,” “bloodless” or “ineffectual.”

Toronto psychologist Evelyn Sommers takes a hard look at this human characteristic in her new book, The Tyranny of Niceness: Unmasking the Need for Approval (Dundurn, $24.99).

As the title makes clear, the book probes the dark side of niceness, which Sommers argues is widely prevalent and often a sign of inauthenticity.

To Sommers, too many people are nice in a way that leads to not standing up for themselves – being silent when they strongly disagree, being afraid to voice their heartfelt opinions.

Excessive niceness, to her, comes out of a desire to be liked by absolutely everyone. It includes being unable to say no; always trying to please; saying “sorry” far too often; being passive.

People who are too nice, Sommers writes, are often in denial about their negative emotions and tend to avoid challenges.

How does society spawn people who are too nice?

It comes out of a form of social control that takes root when people in power abuse it and try to dominate in families, workplaces, institutions and political arenas.

Parents constantly tell their children to “be nice” when really they just want them to shut up, Sommers says. In families, spouses and offspring often use rage to keep other family members intimidated. Bosses, school principals and university heads also often subtly demand conformity, leading to inauthentic niceness.

For instance, Sommers chastises U.S. President George W. Bush for maintaining after Sept. 11, 2001, that “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Such declarations, maintains Sommers, made the U.S. an anxiety-filled nation for legitimate dissenters.

British author George Orwell, who wrote Nineteen Eighty-four, the seminal book about authoritarianism, suggested niceness can be a form of cowed silence, which rises out of fear and oppression.

There is a tremendous amount of niceness in religious organizations, where, on one hand, many people try their best to be compassionate – and on the other, some religious leaders threaten reformers (often politely) with expulsion, or worse: Divine retribution.

In a recent issue of Canada ’s national Anglican Journal newspaper, editor Leanne Larmondin bravely took on the subject of Christian niceness in a piece titled: “Why can’t we simply say what we mean?”

Larmondin chastised many Protestant leaders for being disingenuous in the way they welcomed April’s election of ultra-conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Roman Catholic pope saying their glowing official remarks were far different from those heard in most Protestant coffee-hour discussions.

Larmondin also challenged liberal and conservative leaders in the 70-million-member worldwide Anglican communion to stop being so obtuse about what they believe about homosexuals’ rights – saying the church’s long, formal statements come close to “waffling” or being filled with mere “weasel words.”

Both Sommers and Dr. Gabor Mate, Vancouver-based author of When the Body Says No. The Cost of Hidden Stress, suggest that superficial niceness often hides resentment.

The authors say many people who are too nice are often failing to recognize their inner anger.

Resentment, Mate says, can be insidious. “It’s like taking poison while hoping someone else dies of it.” Resentment eats away at us.

How can we combat the dangers of niceness?

The authors say the antidote to resentment, the byproduct of inauthenticity, is to directly express your opinion.

That means being forthright and honest in your personal relationships, workplaces, religious institutions and public forums. The alternative to niceness is to respectfully air your alternative ideas. To that end. Sommers urges parents to teach their children how to effectively disagree.

Turning your back on excessive niceness can lead to less manipulative behaviour. It can also reduce the need to use what Sommers calls “lazy language,” a form of speaking that makes it seem like you agree when you really don’t.

But combating your own niceness is not a licence to be nasty or rude, reacting impulsively to everything that bugs you.

Saying goodbye to superficial niceness shouldn’t result in endless bouts of rage, constantly criticizing your spouse or risking your livelihood on a daily basis by telling your bosses exactly what you think of their value system.

Maturity requires discretion – an ability to deal with nuances and to learn how to use the right words at the right time.

Of course, to clear up any confusion, it must be clarified that being “nice” and being “kind” are not the same thing.

Unlike suspect “niceness,” kindness is generally a good trait. So is compassion. So is love.

Consider some of the 20th-century people who changed the world: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu.

These people were kind. But, as their lives showed, in the face of brutal adversity, their kindness required strength and courage. Not vapid niceness.