07/03/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Don't Be Nice


"Just be nice," advised the superintendent of schools to the crowd assembled at my niece's graduation from Millburn High School last week. Static muffled his voice, and the microphone periodically shorted out like an old stereo speaker. It was a sweltering early summer evening, and spectators spread across the wet bleachers fanned themselves with thin commencement programs. We all heard his three-word command.

Graduates, I beg of you: don't be nice. In fact, don't "just" be anything, let alone nice.

In fairness to the superintendent, he probably meant "kind" when he said "nice." And given the cutthroat competition at Millburn High, ranked the 69th best high school in the U.S. by Newsweek/The Daily Beast, niceness of any kind, even the most insincere, is probably in short supply. It was here, after all, where four years ago a set of senior girls became famous for creating and circulating a "slut list" of supposedly promiscuous 9th grade girls. You can hardly blame the guy for imploring these stressed-out kids to be decent to one another for a change.

A mandate to be nice is an order to get along, to not make waves, to accept what you hear without questioning, all while wearing a smile. In its obsequious deference to others, niceness maintains the status quo. It's also a tool that helps you get what you want. The most legendary nice kid on TV, Eddie Haskell from Leave It To Beaver, deployed flattery and excessive politeness to get the grown-ups to do his bidding, usually unsuccessfully. He was sneaky and smarmy, and always nice. Most adults are shrewd enough to know that being nice helps when you're pulled over for speeding, or trying to get past a secretary to talk to the CEO, or having to explain why you're late for a dental appointment. It's a strategy for users.

In small doses, being nice is harmless. But when it's adopted by large groups, bad things happen. The Washington press corps was nice when it didn't ask President George W. Bush tougher questions about his plans for post-war Iraq. Bank board members were nice (and probably confused) when they didn't press for too many details about credit-default swaps. Penn State trustees were nice when they didn't challenge that avuncular Mr. Sandusky about silly rumors of "abuse" in the locker rooms. The Vatican was nice when it forgave pedophile priests and relocated them to other dioceses. In all cases, these groups of nice individuals found it easier to accept what they were told rather than ask embarrassing and provocative questions that might have made somebody feel bad. Demanding explanations wouldn't have been nice.

The not-nice, on the other hand, are troublemakers and nuisances, because they don't give up when a situation veers into conflict. Fraud investigator Harry Markopolos is not a nice guy. He would not give up in his lone pursuit of Bernie Madoff, even when the SEC told him to back off. Wendy Davis wasn't nice when she filibustered for 13 hours to block the passage of a strict anti-abortion bill in Texas. N.J. Governor Chris Christie is blunt to the point of rudeness, but he's always effective and you know where he stands. The same could be said for Michael Bloomberg.

I'm not suggesting that what the world needs is certainty and incivility cloaked in righteousness. What we do need are principled leaders who will tolerate doubt, see beyond narrow self-interest and carry on when the crowd turns against them. Courage and humility, dear graduates, as well as curiosity about the wider world, are the character traits to aspire to.

And with all due respect to the boys in the crowd, it's the girls especially who must disregard the superintendent's words. Niceness is the scourge of girlhood. Nice girls put themselves last, do what's asked of them without complaint and exist to please others -- teachers, parents, boyfriends, coaches. Nice girls get A's on their report cards, even in subjects they despise. They say please and thank you robotically, automatically. They apologize often, and end declarative statements with a question mark. Because it's not nice to sound too assertive? In time, their own interests and desires evaporate into the ether.

Forget about being nice. Be honest, especially with yourself. Be brave. Be kind. Be open. And be skeptical of all the nice people with easy answers to complex problems.