The Anatomy of Nice
A couple of months ago, I wrote about my experience being an engaged woman and how that impacted the way that I was treated by the people around me, men and women alike. I found that the statement people struggled the most with in the post was this: “Being a ‘nice guy’ isn’t good enough anymore.” This was surprising to me, but perhaps I need to be more clear in the way that I am communicating this sentiment. Perhaps people just disagree with me, and that’s fine too. Either way, here’s my best attempt at defining, to me, what it means to be “Nice”:
One Sunday morning a while back (the “while” is shorter than I’d like), I was at church serving as a volunteer. Every Sunday morning, the church gives volunteers breakfast to show its appreciation, and that day, I decided to bring my food back to the room I was serving in, rather than eat the food there. A homeless woman approached me, seeing the hot food that I had on my plate, and bravely asked, “Can I get some of that?” I politely looked at her, smiled, and said, “Sorry, I think this is just for church volunteers,” and proceeded to my destination.
I told myself that if I had given the poor woman, who probably hadn’t eaten in a while, my food, then maybe a whole bunch of homeless people would come in on Sunday mornings and eat the volunteer food, and the team making it wouldn’t like that. I tried to convince myself that it was wrong of me to assume she was homeless; maybe she was just a hipster. I complained (internally) that this even happened to me and wondered what other people would’ve done. I hadn’t been kind, I wasn’t sacrificial, I definitely wasn’t empathetic. But I was nice. I had smiled politely. I was volunteering at a church, for God’s sake (or so I told myself). I was a Nice Girl, and it’s a choice that I frequently look back on with regret.
I must preface this by saying that being a Nice Person is not an identity, it is a choice. I am Asian American. I am a woman. I am a Christian. I am a TV fanatic. Those are aspects of me that I refuse to separate from the fabric of my being. Being a Nice Girl is something that I choose to be when I wake up in the morning. I grew up around Nice Girls and Nice Guys. Many of the people I love very much are frequently Nice People. Nice Girls and Nice Guys often make my day better; they make me laugh, they make me smile, they make me forget that life is hard.
A Nice Person probably grew up the same way I did, in a middle class family in the suburbs with a dream of growing up and making a stable living with a medium-sized house and a reliable retirement plan, though that is not set in stone. A Nice Person probably went to a good (if not, great) school and invested time in extracurriculars and got along with all of the other Nice People that also went to this good school. A Nice Person has a few or maybe a lot of Nice Friends, people who have the same goals and same ideology.
A Nice Girl avoids confrontation at all costs, leaving passive-aggressive notes when she wants her roommates or coworkers to be cleaner, and a Nice Guy holds doors open for people behind him that are walking into the same building. A Nice Person keeps his or her head down, arms in, and he or she focuses on what’s “important.” A Nice Girl smiles to everyone she sees, making sure it is her responsibility that person is having a Nice Day, and a Nice Guy says what he thinks he wants his friends to hear so that he can maintain an illusion of comfort, the most important characteristic of a Nice Lifestyle.
A Nice Girl suffers alone because she doesn’t want to be a burden to the people around her, because she’d prefer to make people laugh or feel good. A Nice Guy swallows all of the pain that he feels because it is not like a Nice Guy to be angry or upset when something’s not right. Nice Girls don’t like to admit that they are not perfect; Nice Guys like to pretend that everything is going to be okay and think that if they continue to do so, maybe it will be true.
Nice People whisper their criticisms and their mean comments behind closed doors because they don’t want other Nice People to know when maybe they’re not being so Nice after all. Nice Guys marry Nice Girls and have kids, and they teach their kids to be Nice too. Nice Kids stand aside when a girl is being called ugly or fat or dumb because, like I said, Nice People keep their heads down and mind their own business. Nice Kids also look the other way when a boy is being beat up for being gay or scrawny or feminine. Nice Kids tell themselves that being bullied builds character for the victim, so they leave them alone, forgetting that standing up for the downtrodden builds character too. Maybe these Nice Kids are even the ones that are doing the ridiculing and the kicking because, you see, even Nice Kids are capable of doing Bad Things. Maybe these Nice Kids aren’t really so Nice either.
Nice Guys and Nice Girls frequently forget the privilege they must have in order for them to be Nice in the first place, that it means that you can survive on your own and not think about the tough things and choose to believe that just a smile will brighten someone’s day. Nice People probably donate money to hungry children in Yemen or sponsor a child halfway across the world or even give the homeless person down the street a bit of money so they can afford a McDonald’s meal that evening. Nice Girls might try to adopt, not shop. Nice Guys probably have, on occasion, bought a pair of Toms or two so that an African child can also have shoes. They know they’re doing very Nice Things, and they might hope that it balances out the time they called that poor girl “fat” or the time they kicked that gay kid for being gay or the other Bad Things they may have done.
Nice Girls remain silent when Nice Guys touch them in places where they’re not welcome because these Nice Guys (the boyfriends, teachers, church leaders, fathers, strangers) don’t deserve what they’re going to get if their ugliness is revealed to the world. Or maybe because the Nice Girls really believe that their loved ones aren’t like those Bad Guys, and words like “rapist” and “sexist” and “sexual assault” are only ever reserved for Bad Guys. And Nice Guys, they know that things aren’t really right, but, like Nice Guys are wont to do, they keep quiet because they just want to mind their own business. Nice People would much rather talk about happy and easy things than all the fucking shit that’s happening with our country and in the world, and it’s the Nice People who are more upset that I just said “fucking shit” than the fact that it’s happening at all.*
*Paraphrased from other, much more intelligent people, like this quote I once saw randomly in some place from Tony Campolo that just stuck with me.
Nice People, at times, are worse than Bad People because they seem to be the ones that disappoint us the most. They are so close to being “good,” but sometimes being “good” is just too scary.
Nice People have good in their hearts, but they’re weak in the knees.
“Nice” is also what you say to someone after they’ve just told you everything they’ve had to eat that day and you’re completely uninterested, but you don’t want them to think you’re ignoring them because, well, maybe you’re choosing to be a Nice Person. “Nice” is what you ironically call a Bad Kid when he comes up and kicks you in the shin for absolutely no reason at all when you’re having a horrible day and that was just the icing on the cake. “Nice” is an adjective reserved for someone you quite literally had just met and have forgotten her name already because she was that unmemorable. “Nice” is the word you use to describe something when it’s not quite “good” but it’s not “bad,” but maybe the correct word you actually mean to use is, “neutral” or “indifferent” or “meh”.
I don’t think that anyone that truly makes an impact on anyone else can be described as “nice.” I think that’s a huge insult, actually. When I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., the word that immediately comes to mind is not “nice.” Maybe set the bar lower, Kimbo. Fine. When I think back on the teachers that I had growing up, I don’t remember them because they were just… so “nice.” I remember them because they were pretty, or they smelled like flowers, or because for the first time, they made me think that maybe English isn’t boring, and that the meaning of words, as nuanced as they may be, actually matter.
I’ve been a Nice Girl my whole life. I walk down the street ignoring things and really thinking that everything will be okay for everyone as long as we’re just friendly to each other. But I’m tired. They don’t tell you that when you choose to be Nice, it’s almost always lonely because Nice People are rarely ever united in their pain. In fact, they don’t talk about their pain at all.
It’s Nice People that got us to where we are today. You see, people like Donald Trump love Nice People. If you really think about why he called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” that day, you will realize that he, in fact, handed her a huge compliment. Maybe you didn’t understand why women all over the country are identifying themselves as “nasty women” too. It’s because if people like Donald Trump are their own standard for “good,” then sign us up for nasty training because we want to be as far from that guy as possible. He called Hillary that because she had dared to speak up against him and had the strength to stand firmly for what she believed in. Regardless of your opinion of Hillary Clinton, you have to agree that she does not give up. She fought and refused to back down, and so she became a nasty woman. But Nice People, see, they like to focus on what’s “important” and “comfortable,” and “nasty” is the last word they want to be used to describe them.
Don’t get me wrong. Wanting a stable, easy life with a hefty retirement fund is not bad. Most people appreciate chivalry and people who contribute to charities and smiles and laughter. A lot of the things I mentioned above are, in fact, very good in and of themselves, but when we do them because they’re easy and comfortable, there’s a part of us that feels better about ourselves, and that diminishes the value of the good action and turns it “Nice”. I don’t want to let those actions be the ones that define my identity anymore. I want to be courageous. My head-down mentality will not do anything to combat the growing Islamophobia in America. In the same way, someone holding the door open for me is not going to bring back the reproductive health care benefits I’m expecting to lose in the next few years, and it’s not going to erase the hateful language that’s being used casually on innocent strangers that look differently or believe differently or love differently. That is what I mean by, “Being a ‘nice guy’ isn’t good enough anymore.” I hope that the events of the past week have been a sobering enough wake-up call. We don’t need any more Nice Guys. We have enough Nice Guys. Literally anyone can be nice. We need warriors, male and female, that will fight for what is right.
Like I mentioned, I firmly believe that it is a decision, a wrong one, that I make when I wake up in the morning on too many occasions. And opportunities like the one with the homeless woman, opportunities that prove that I would rather be a nasty woman than a Nice Girl, don’t come up for me every day, and I must recognize that that is a damn privilege. But I’m tired of being nice and failing the tests when they pop up; aren’t you? And if you still feel offended because you think I’m talking to you when I bring up Nice Guys and Nice Girls, I leave you with this: Be inspirational. Be loud. Be angry, be strong, be amazing, be brave, outspoken, rebellious, kind, emotional, intelligent, articulate, selfless, funny, revolutionary, understanding, crazy. Be you, be “nasty”, be better than nice. And if you’ve ever made a real impact on anyone at all, know that you are not just a Nice Person. Why would anyone want to settle for “nice”? Don’t insult yourself. You’re more than that. And every day when you wake up in the morning, you have the opportunity to choose to be more than that.