Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How does such a nice person get labeled a meanie?

It happened again recently.  A grown man, an internet acquaintance, told me I wasn't being very nice.  I couldn't see his face or hear the tone behind his written words, but what popped into my head was a little kid saying, "Teacher!  Teacher!  Marsha is being mean to me!"

This push-back followed an email from another man apologizing for letting me see that he was offended by something I had said.  It was the first I knew of the offense.  I knew he didn't respond positively to a statement I made that contradicted something he had said, and I knew he left the scene shortly after, but the time gap was sufficient that I didn't make the connection.

Two offenses in one day!  It left me wondering:  Am I not a nice person?  And that question led to another question:  Do I want to be a nice person?  When set against such qualities as authentic, discerning, thoughtful, honest, transparent, loving, gentle, kind, good, and patient, where would I rank "nice" on my list of priorities?  Which of those virtues are part and parcel of "nice"?

I encountered someone new at the public library where I work this week.  He offered to do a favor for a staff member and then, with a self-deprecating chuckle, said, "I'm really a mean person."  And my "fraud alarm" went off.  Too much surface niceness, it said.  Watch out for this guy.  People who put their niceness on display make me nervous.  I wonder what lies behind it?

Can I be discerning and committed to honesty and consistently nice all at the same time?  I don't think a commitment to honesty requires one to make unkind comments to or about others, but it might make one less than syrupy sweet when discussing areas where there are different views among the group.  That was the case in both of my offenses this week.  My opinion differed from that of the men who found me less than nice and they were offended by the way I expressed that opinion.  Apparently, nice people don't push back against their statements the way I did.

So what do nice people do when they don't agree with what is being said?  Do they keep their thoughts to themselves?  Do they have skills I lack for expressing their disagreement in a way that doesn't stir up defensiveness?  Are the nicest people those who let others do the hard work of thinking and debating issues while they simply smile and focus on puppies and cookie recipes?

Is "nice" in conversation the equivalent to "bland" in food?  I realize that's my view of people who are nice in every situation.  No salt.  No backbone.  No iron sharpening iron.  Dull and bland.  Or worse, fake; wearing a mask of niceness to lull others into thinking they are wonderful.

And yet ... I spend almost all my time being a nice person.  Polite society depends on nice people being nice to each other, and even to not-so-nice people.  I get a lot of practice in the art of being nice to obnoxious people at the public library.  How is it that I, with all my developed skills, managed to offend two grown men in one day by countering their thoughts with my own in ways they found offensive?  Do I need to be a nicer person or do they need to make more space for me to freely express my viewpoint without taking offense?  If the answer is more niceness needed on my part, how do I get there while valuing authenticity in my relationships and without sacrificing independent thinking?

One more thing to ponder.