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9 Ways To Be Nicer

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Congratulations! You made it through the holidays with minimal damage. Sure, your aunt got in her usual digs and your brother was impossible. But the traps were set and you didn't take the bait. That's what it means to be nice.

To hear America tell it, nice people are a dying breed. Nearly 70 percent of us think our fellow Americans are getting ruder by the minute. And we don't need a poll to tell us how ill-mannered, inconsiderate, and self-serving we can be. Take a look at Washington and Wall Street and the Republican run-up to the primaries, not to mention the shock jocks and acid-tongued pundits dominating the airwaves. (Surely signing Howard Stern to judge America's Got Talent was the death knell for family entertainment).

But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has been getting a lot of press for proposing a more upbeat view. In "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Pinker argues that humanity has become steadily nicer over the last 10,000 or so years. Before we get too excited, Pinker is talking about an overall drop in violence: declining death rates from wars, genocide, and murder. He's not talking about those little deaths we endure daily--the demise of kindness and common courtesy for two. Still, could there be something to what he's suggesting?

I wasn't optimistic when I started researching my book, "The Meaning of Nice" [Berkley Trade, $14.00]. Happily, I was in for some surprises. In a small, informal survey I asked participants to pick the adjectives they most associated with nice. Their first choice was kind, and the rest of the top 10 pretty much followed: helpful, courteous, considerate, compassionate, polite, gracious, attentive, friendly, and tied for tenth place, generous and thoughtful. Nearly everyone considered manners important, although almost none gave themselves good marks for performance. What we aspire to and how we actually behave aren't yet in sync, it seems.

There are hints, however, that a nicer, kinder person is emerging. Values and character are now conversational topics among people of all ages and persuasions. Empathy is the research topics du jour in fields as diverse as neuroscience and economics. Still, as one journalist recently pointed out, opening your heart to the plight of other people and actually doing something about it are two different matters. So are we really getting nicer--or just a little savvier about persuading ourselves that we are?

The good news is, we're all born with the basic equipment to be kind, generous, and the rest. Short of having some genetic screw loose, anyone can learn to be nicer. Being nice is as much about what you don't do as what you do. So here are some dos and don'ts to get you started:

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Correction: The piece originally stated that Steven Pinker had argued that humanity had become nicer "over the last 50,000 or so years." This has now been corrected to 10,000 years.