Being nice is kind of my thing. I need only the faintest hint of a reason to bake a batch of cookies, and a day doesn’t pass without my exclaiming compliments all over Twitter about other people’s books/blogs/outfits/faces. I do all this because I get pleasure out of it, and because I am naturally enthusiastic, and because I am addicted to sugar. This behavior caused a blog to call me “the nicest person on the internet,” which I found completely flattering, and like I had won the secret Olympic sport of reverse-intimidation, which comes with a diamond tiara that only I can see. Of course, being nice is not a one-size-fits-all solution, nor should it be. It’s not always the way to go! Niceness is something I struggle with often, and I know other people do too, so I thought I’d go through a handy-dandy list of some sticky situations below.
1. Being Nice to Get What You Want
It does not make you an evil and calculating person to be nice with a goal in mind. Have you ever heard the phrase “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”? Meaning, if you’re giving your teacher an attitude, they are less likely to give you an extension. This holds true throughout life, with cable-installation professionals and mothers and boyfriends and girlfriends and bosses and friends. Some people might call this being manipulative, but that’s because they’re not as nice as I am—it’s only manipulative if you’re being fake nice to get what you want. Remember that being fake nice and being polite are different things, and that the latter is always better than the former.
2. Being Nice Because You’re a Nice Person
My husband and I babysit a friend’s daughter once a week. Some people think this is very sweet, and some people think we’re being taken advantage of, but we’re not—sometimes people actually do need your help, and friendship sometimes requires a sacrifice of your own time. This is a tricky one for me, because I will often overextend myself so much that I have no time to get my own work done/go on a date with my husband/sit on the couch and sing songs about my cats. So while you’re at it, remember to be nice to yourself, too. Which leads me to…
3. Being Nice Because You’re Afraid to Say No
Are you a vegetarian who routinely goes to dinner at burger joints? Then you might be afraid to say no. Being nice should not make you a doormat. No one wants to put someone else in an awkward or uncomfortable situation, so you should always be clear about your own limits and needs. If you find that your friends still insist on going places where you can’t eat anything on the menu, then your friends are jerks, and you should rid yourself of them.
4. Being Nice Because You’re a Girl
How are we not past this one? But we’re not. When I go to a dinner party at someone’s house, I will always spring up out of my chair to help clean up. Societal norms for femininity still include grace and deference, both of which sound like things out of a Jane Austen novel, but here we are in the 21st century. The next time you catch yourself offering to help just because you’re the only girl, find a boy and make him do it.
5. Being Nice Because You Don’t Want People to Get Mad at You
This is the one that I struggle with the most. I don’t like being on anyone’s bad side, and I want everyone to like me, all the time. Is this possible? No. So this means that I have to learn to deal with occasionally letting people down, and causing conflict, and having uncomfortable conversations. I’ve been getting better at this recently, and here’s what I’ve discovered: it is always worse inside your own brain. Most other people in the world are sympathetic, and if you approach a conflict with a calm voice and a good attitude, things usually work out in the end. You are allowed to have an opinion. And here is the secret truth: someone who is always perfectly nice is also perfectly boring. Some of the most generous, kind people I know are also the sharpest, and I take their criticisms seriously. When someone is always miserable and angry, it is purely a reflection of their internal state, and their comments are easy to write off. But when a really nice person tells me that some third party is a snake filled with nothing but pus and bile, I believe them.
It’s taken me a long time — I’m 31, at the moment I’m typing this — to make these kinds of distinctions. There really is a difference between the kind of niceness that will endear you to other people, and enrich your life, and the kind that will make you cry for hours while petting your cats because they’re the only ones who never let you down. (Note: I do not do this. But I probably did when I was 15.) The real key is this: being a nice person includes being good to yourself. The nicest people I know are also the most confident, which is to say: don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, and to draw boundaries when necessary. Let’s hope that you, dear Rookies, are the first generation of women not to need this information, because you already know it so deep in your sturdy, glorious bones.
Emma Straub is the author of a short-story collection, "Other People We Married," and the forthcoming novel "Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures." Her earliest crushes were River Phoenix, Joey McIntyre and Andrew McCarthy, and her most recent crushes are her husband, her cats and cheese.