Fake Nice vs. Real Mean

Is it better to be fake nice than genuinely mean?

At first glance, it seems like a terrible idea. Living authentically means never being fake about anything. Or does it?

“When I first heard that idea about fake nice being preferable to real mean, my response was to reject it,” Kate, a fellow community member of mine, noted. “Faking it sounded the same as lying and manipulating.”

Kate and I had both lived in the same intentional community in Atlanta, Georgia, from the late 1990s to the mid-2010s.

I had to agree.

After all, I initially embraced a communal life in part to distance myself from the fakers, liars, frauds and sociopaths of the world. I was tired of pretending to be other than my true self at school, at work, in front of certain family members.

“So, no,” I thought at first, “It is definitely never better to be fake nice than genuinely mean.”

But then…I did more life research….and I changed my mind — as did Kate. It’s not that I gave up my desire to live an authentic life, it’s that I learned the value of being nice, even if I had to fake it.

Ideology that seems so pure like “never fake anything” withers when faced with the flesh- and-blood, feeling, sensate people I share a life with and our communal real-life challenges.

“Authentic at all costs” is part of the same line of thinking as “radical self-reliance”. For me and Kate, for many years and a multitude of reasons including self-protection and pride, independence meant relying on no one outside of ourselves. Holding the viewpoints of radical self-reliance and authentic at all costs meant we didn’t have much, but at least we had our convictions.

For me, at some point, probably right before my daughter was born, I softened my ideas about taking care of 100% of my own needs. Stunningly, when my views became gentler, a new universe of connection revealed itself.

A deeper intimacy became available when I admitted I both wanted and needed my partner, not just for his heart and body, but for his functionality, too.

When I fell in love with the man who would become my husband and we had kids, something shifted in me. I “needed” things from him. I chose to gradually interweave my life with his. A pattern of interdependence developed. Yes, he made more money and paid more bills and I definitely did more errands, but there were other things, too, like I comforted him or protected his space when he needed it and he encouraged me in turn. He paid the taxes and I helped the kids do their homework and packed their lunches. I gratefully accepted his generosity and was a charming companion when he took us out to dinner.

Living in community, the interdependence extended beyond my partnership relationship and became more subtle and complicated the more people were added in. We all needed one another for various reasons even if it was just friendship while we did our laundry. We accompanied each other both to parties and doctors’ appointments. If I made a smoothie for breakfast, I made extra for my housemates. We pooled money and made decisions like which house repair was a higher priority: replace the dryer or fix the leaking sink? How could we support each other and get both repairs done? Maybe I could clean your room for you so that you would have time to do some basic plumbing. Once I started sniffing around interdependent relationships, the importance of basic rules of civil engagement became apparent.

At that point, for me, fake nice became self-evidently better than genuine mean.

Kate described it like this: “At first, I could be ‘fake nice’ in small situations. For example, if someone steps on my toe, I could jab them a little with a snarl or a cryptic response to their apology. Or I could extend to them the benefit of the doubt and say in earnest, “No problem. I know you didn’t mean it.”

It was harder with my partner, Amy, because I expected more from her.

One evening, Amy offered to go buy pizza for dinner. “Great,” I said, “I would love pepperoni on mine.” She returned 45 minutes later with sausage pizza.

My default response back then to requests of mine that were partly or clumsily filled was to be mean. I would think, “See! This is another example of how she doesn’t pay attention to me.”

When I started trying out “fake nice” — you know, acting nice even when I felt like getting even, I noticed immediately that our partnership got smoother. I mean if a partnership has 2 legs or 4 legs, however you want to look at it, you want all the legs working. I didn’t want to sweep her legs out from under her for not bringing me the perfect pizza, right?

And in our partnership, she did most of the production. She was a workhorse and she gave me the reins. Did I really want to hobble my workhorse?

In relation to the pizza story, even though I was feeling mean and small because of how much I prefer pepperoni to sausage, I knew intellectually that I wanted to be nice to my loving, devoted partner who had just brought home pizza.

I practiced being fake nice and said, ‘Thank you for the pizza. I really appreciate you bringing it home. Next time, will you get mine with pepperoni?’

Maybe it felt artificial to her for me to pull those sentences together. Maybe in my tone or facial expression, my underlying mean feelings were still apparent.

Nevertheless, by willfully choosing the nicer route, Amy felt my affection for her. She almost dropped the slice in her hand to rush off and get me pepperoni pizza immediately. My silent disapproval or outright complaints would have been much more hurtful, I promise. There might never have been pizza in my future from her again.”

What Kate was describing was: “Fake it until you make it.”

Faking it can set new grooves in the habits of the mind and lead to new patterns of behavior. Practicing niceness is a pathway toward mastery. Eventually the nice becomes ingrained and becomes genuine.

So yes, I still have a negative response to the idea of faking anything and I still want to live as authentically as possible. What my experience of being married and living in a group has taught me is that I can practice “higher-road” behavior even when I feel small, hurt or angry. The ultimate lesson learned? I value my relationships more than my ideas.