How many times have you heard someone say that so-and-so is too nice to tell the person they’re seeing that they want to call it quits, too nice to address unfair working conditions with their employer or too nice to ask someone to stop using that seat on the subway as a foot stool? There certainly are people who are soft-spoken and decidedly non-confrontational. But that doesn’t mean they’re nicer relative to everyone else. It’s just their personality. You can be assertive, honest and even outspoken and still be a very nice person.
People know what I mean when I describe someone as nice. None of us lives in isolation, and that calls for a certain level of mutual acknowledgement and civility. But when you step back and watch people interact, especially in a large city, it becomes clear that people are often ‘nice’ in order to avoid reproach and confrontation. Or even to avoid contact with each other. People don’t look each other in the eye very often – and when they do, they quickly look away. The only time it’s understandable to do otherwise is when you’re checking each other out or glaring at each other. Many of these rules apply in personal relationships. A lot of the time, we’re not always nice because we’re genuinely good people – although that may of course be true.
It’s because we’re cowards. Recently a friend told me about someone they know who was having trouble getting this guy to leave her alone. “She’s too nice to tell him to back off,” he explained. “Bullshit!” I shot back. I acknowledged that this person may indeed be nice, but the truly nice thing to do would be to suck it up and tell him, in a respectful way, that she’s just not interested in him that way. And then when he insists he just wants to be friends (which is clearly not the case), she doesn’t agree to go for a coffee with him. Yes, people should be able to take a hint but when they don’t, we have a responsibility not to lead them on. That’s not nice. If you know someone wants something from you but you’re not in a position to give it to them and you let things drag on, what it actually looks like to me is that you’re more concerned about how bad you’ll feel when you see how crushed they are than you are about doing right by them. It’s time to cut the bullshit and be nice. Like, in the true sense. Sometimes that means telling people things they don’t want to hear. Nicely.
People everywhere are walking on egg shells. They feel uncomfortable when sharing elevators with others. They don’t want to bug people by asking for help. Go to a bar where everyone’s drinking and you notice people aren’t quite so shy about talking to strangers anymore. That wouldn’t happen in a society where people felt it was okay to interact with human beings they don’t know. What happens when people do get too close? Let’s say I brushed you with my purse. I’d have to acknowledge this so you don’t think I’m a bitch. The expected remedy would be to toss an apology in your general direction without looking you in the eye or showing (or feeling) any real empathy. Apologies are great, but my point is that we’re let off the hook for being cold and evasive because we’re trained to act a certain way that we’ve convinced ourselves fulfills our obligations to each other. One thing seems clear: our social interactions are often awkward and repressed. As much as we try not to step on each other’s toes, we’re still not all that nice to each other.
I think this prescribed politeness is a reflection of how disconnected we are from each other, at least in our minds. It’s very easy to feel connected to a character in a movie or novel and yet we’re surrounded by real flesh and blood people that we don’t feel comfortable standing next to on the street corner. There’s an awkwardness that’s palpable. I sometimes people watch and wonder where this or that person is coming from or where they’re going to. What’s their day been like? What sort of job do they have? If you could read minds, what sort of profile would any given group of people conjure? This person just filed for divorce. That person got a promotion at work but is worried that they have to move their whole family across the country. That guy in the tattered leather jacket with his hands in his pockets? Definitely thinking about getting laid. And he’s not the only one. The lady in the purple dress who seems desperate for a seat had Vindaloo for dinner and is wondering if she can make it to a restroom on time. Behind every seemingly neutral public mask is a complex web of thoughts and feelings. Imagine all the stuff that’s going on with the strangers around us that would make it so much easier for us to relate to them! And yet, for fear of seeming like a perv, psycho or just annoying, we ignore each other instead. I think this is a big part of the reason why so many people feel lonely in urban environments. It’s a dynamic I admittedly cooperate with. Hell, I’m the person who wonders why people look at me. Is my fly down? Is my hair sticking up? Everybody’s so self-conscious. I suspect insecurity is a big part of why we can’t relax with ourselves, let alone each other.
How do people behave toward each other in societies that aren’t obsessed with image and narcissism? The ancient Inca commonly greeted each other by uttering the phrase, “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t be lazy!” (Amu Llulla, Amu Quella and Amu Sua). The ancient Maya, though widely misunderstood (you’re picturing a crazy-eyed shaman clutching a beating heart, aren’t you?), greeted each other with the phrase In Lak’ech, which translates as “I am you and you are me”. Namaste, which anyone who’s attended a yoga class will have heard, simply means “I salute the divine in you”. The way we address each other, or fail to, has a lot of power. It’s not a bad idea to take some cues from our collective ancestors about how we can develop a more conscious, peaceful public life.