I just had a visit from Josie, who has been my friend since I was a teenager. Totally by chance, we got on the subject of high school yearbooks, and the things people write in them. Josie was not happy about what her friends had written in her senior yearbook. “They all said the same thing,” she told me. “‘You’re so nice and sweet!'” She sounded bitter instead of sweet, and at first I thought I understood why.
My reaction to my yearbook is similar. Last year, I read through the messages my classmates wrote me and it seemed like they all boiled down to a single sentiment: “Stay crazy!” When I realized this, I felt unknown and a little insulted. They didn’t have anything else to say about me and our years together? And yet, I wrote the same sort of things in everyone else’s books. Except for my closest friend, who got pages of references to inside jokes and shared memories, I didn’t really know what to write. Trite and tired observations like “you’re nice and sweet” are probably the default for most people.
Eventually, I realized there was more to Josie’s irritation over the labels of “nice and sweet” than just the triteness of it. Nice has negative connotations today. When most people say “nice” they really mean “polite”, and polite has a dark side. If you are being polite, there is an assumption that, at least some of the time, you are suppressing your true feelings in order to be pleasant. You say the appropriate thing instead of the true thing.
In Josie’s case, her nice is genuine. She means the things she says. She complimented me in various ways over the course of her visit, telling me how she saw me today or how she remembered me as a teen. Her comments were flattering — so flattering that it was easy for me to dismiss them completely.
And that’s where the problem with nice is. It isn’t in the person who is being nice, it’s in the person they’re being nice to. Because I didn’t believe what Josie says is true, I assumed she didn’t either, that she was “just being nice”. But she is deadly earnest in her comments. She’s an intelligent, observant human being. She’s sharing her insights after taking the time to reflect and consider. She couldn’t be more honest in her intent.
The next time I’m faced with nice, I will set aside my assumptions and try to hear what’s being said, see with the other’s eyes, and accept that just maybe all that nice is real. Otherwise, I devalue the kindness and compassion I receive by assuming that the other person doesn’t mean it.
Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about acceptance. To see a list of other posts on acceptance and compassion, click here.