Friday, January 14, 2011

Niceness and weakness

Jennifer Granholm wrote ”Don’t mistake niceness for weakness”. I heard this quote for the first time many years ago and thought it made sense then without reflecting too much upon it, but was reminded of it today in conversation. It really is not uncommon for people to mistake niceness for weakness in today’s world, such that niceness becomes something to avoid or to squelch. Which leads me to wanting to define niceness in today’s world. Being nice doesn’t seem to be emphasized as much today as it was when I was growing up. When I was young child, we were always told to be nice to people and especially to older people. In those days, being ‘nice’ meant being well-mannered, quiet, polite, respectful, kind, tactful, generous and helpful. Rebellious, assertive, or demanding behavior was not nice behavior and was not encouraged in young women. Weakness was rarely discussed, and if it was, it was discussed in terms of physical attributes-- it was assumed that women were the physically weaker sex compared to men. I think the definition of being ‘nice’ from when we were children is still relevant for today. There is nothing wrong with wanting to encourage people to be all those things, but it's also quite ok to tell women especially that there is nothing wrong with being either honest or assertive--in other words, nothing wrong with opening your mouth and having an opinion. 

I don’t have any problem with being nice as long as others don’t have any problem understanding that my being nice does not mean that I am weak. I’ve gotten into conflicts with people who think that, or who think that they can take advantage of me because they mistake my niceness not only for weakness but for stupidity as well. They find out that I can defend myself pretty well if they push me too far, but that I don’t have to retaliate in kind. I think that being nice to others is a sign of integrity and strength—strength of character. It is much easier to be rude, ill-mannered, unkind, selfish and unhelpful because it is the base part of ourselves that would like to rise up and rule sometimes by taking the path of least resistance. To be nice means to exert effort in our dealings with others. It may mean listening politely to others when maybe you’d rather do something else; it means sometimes being of service to others instead of demanding service from others. It means sometimes letting someone else be the center of attention or giving someone else a turn. It means understanding that you have had your time in the limelight and that now it may be another person’s turn to shine. It means holding your tongue when maybe you’d like to lash out or criticize another person. It means not retaliating when maybe you’d like to do just that to someone who hurt you. It’s not always easy to be nice in my book, even though Dag Hammarskjold said that "It is easy to be nice, even to an enemy - from lack of character." I try to understand what he means by this, and what I come up with is that he interprets niceness generally as dishonesty.

The world doesn’t applaud niceness at the same time that it really could use more of it. We hear that ‘Nice guys finish last’. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said that "Well behaved women rarely make history." I don’t really agree with these quotes, but I understand how they might have come about. But Addison Walker said that “It's not true that nice guys finish last. Nice guys are winners before the game even starts”.  And Wilson Mizner said "Be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet them on your way down.” Because there is nothing quite so (secretly) enjoyable as to watch a person who has treated others like crap on his or her way to the top, get his or her comeuppance on the way down. It is not nice to admit this, but it’s easy to admit it because it’s human to feel this way.

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