When Being Nice Isn’t Nice

Nice is an icky word (having been a counselor for close to a decade now, I’ve learned that “icky” is often the only appropriate word for things).

Niceness, in general, can often be icky.


We use nice to describe things that aren’t good or great or memorable. We use it when we don’t want to be mean, but we don’t want to lie. It’s a perfect, middling, lukewarm word.


This is why we often choose being nice over actually being helpful or useful or doing anything at all. It’s an escape, and we embrace it.

Here’s the problem, though: being nice is often one of the least nice things we can do. There’s a reason for this. What we often call being nice is actually us taking the easy way out or being selfish without wanting to admit it.


The Problem with Niceness


Let’s say our friend has changed over the years to be less and less likable. They interrupt people, they are rude, and their hygiene has been slipping. It’s obvious something is wrong, but we, being the nice people we are, don’t say anything to them about it. We, in our niceness, remain friends with them, accepting all these new unpalatable traits.


Now let’s say you are a doctor. A person comes in with a variety of habits that are killing them. They don’t move enough, they smoke cigarettes, their diet is toxic, and they drink too much. They are unhealthy, but you are also a nice doctor, so you don’t say anything about it. Instead, you do as much as you can to make them comfortable and to allow them the highest quality of life they can have without changing.


The first scenario will seem plausible to most of us since we are nice people, but I hope that we all struggle with the second one, at least a little bit. It’s evident that niceness is not always the best choice and can be harmful.

But, you say, this isn’t a fair comparison. In the first situation we’re peers – we are friends. I have no business saying anything to them. In the second scenario, though, I am in a position of authority, the person is coming to me asking my opinion. I should be honest with them.


Why don’t we love our friend enough to tell him what his behavior is bringing to his door rather than watching his social life dwindle to nothing, though? Chances are, he recognizes that people are avoiding him and he may not be aware of exactly why. What is so nice about allowing people to engage in destructive behavior without being aware of it?


The Cruelty of Niceness


It’s hard to be honest with ourselves sometimes. We like to think that we do things out of altruism and selflessness because it keeps us comfortable. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. We don’t like confrontation. We don’t like the moments of uncomfortable silence after we say something that might be true but isn’t nice.


This is why we lie to people. We imply that we could get back together when we’re breaking up with them. We say a position may open up later when we know we aren’t going to hire them. We tell people that circumstances were unfair when they just didn’t measure up.


The problem with these supposed niceties is that they give people a sense of false hope, which might be more cruel than anything we could say to them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen have a false sense of hope and optimism because someone didn’t want to have a difficult conversation with them. Instead, they let the person die a slow, lingering death waiting for the promised or implied next chance to come along.


The Magic of Honesty


Somebody once told me that I’m not the kind of counselor you send people to for a hug. If I’m honest, this bothered me a little bit at first. I want to be the nice, loving therapist that people look back on as a kind caregiver. I’m that sometimes, but I rarely find that the path to actual change and healing is easy or filled only with hugs.


The most significant and most important changes I’ve seen people make have always been predicated by some confrontation – either with another person, with themselves, or with the kind of counselor who doesn’t give you a hug right away.


I don’t know what it is about our culture that has led us to classify confrontation as a negative thing. I don’t think that anything in the history of the world has ever changed for the better without some confrontation. Women got the right to vote through confrontation. People addressed segregation and slavery through confrontation. There was a small confrontation involved in dealing with Hitler.


Outside of these large-scale confrontations are the tiny ones we engage in every day. We talk to our friend about standing us up. We talk to our boss about not getting the raise he promised us. We talk to our spouse about feeling neglected. These are all confrontations, and they are all necessary for things to change for the better.


On an even more intimate scale are the confrontations we have with ourselves. We realize that we’re drinking too much, and we decide to address it. We acknowledge that we’ve been staying up too late and that’s why we’re exhausted all the time, so we start going to bed earlier. We become aware that our ego is running amok, bringing a lot of stress and destruction into our lives, and we address this.

These are all confrontations, and they are all necessary.


As a counselor, a mentor, and a coach, I’ve realized that constructive confrontation in a healthy environment is one of the most important things we can bring into our lives. The desire to be nice, to protect ourselves and other people from confrontation, will always keep people (and ourselves) locked into unhealthy patterns of behavior.


Is Nice Really Nice?


Confrontation is important, but it can also be messy In general, two simple rules that worked for me:


Confront only because you care. Don’t make it about you.

Make sure the relationship is strong enough to bear the confrontation. It’s hard to be confronted, you need to have the relationship capital built up beforehand.

Confrontation is beneficial, but too much can crash things. Make sure your motives are trustworthy and that you are close enough to the person that will be able to hear what you have to say.


Nice isn’t always nice. Be honest with yourself about why you may be avoiding the challenging discussion and confront the people you love when necessary.

It’s not easy, but most worthwhile things aren’t.

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