My last two columns have dealt with some pretty weighty issues: blood and censorship. This week I decided to take a step back and opine on something I’ve run into a lot since returning from abroad. That “something” with which I take issue is niceness.
Calling someone nice means almost nothing, and if anything, certainly nothing positive. Often the nicest people are also the most boring. You know the adage: Heaven must be one hell of a boring place. After reading this column I hope you will agree to never again use the word nice to describe someone, except in a tongue-in-cheek way. And if you come across someone who does use nice seriously, that you do the right thing and explain why she or he needs to choose another adjective.
Nice has become synonymous with agreeable. It is seen as nice to shy away from arguments, disagreements or uncomfortable situations. Think for a moment about your best memories with your closest friends. In my mind and, I imagine, in yours — unless you are indeed nice — I cannot think of one funny, warm or important memory that happened because my friends and I were being nice. My most vivid memories, in fact, involve my friends and I being the opposite — often immature or staying up late to debate topics from which today’s nice people would recoil.
To be considered nice in 21st century America one must master contrivances and be willing to accept the nauseating art of uninteresting surface-level conversation, which involves countless forced smiles and incessant head nodding. None of this is seen as a regrettable aspect of pragmatism; instead, it’s used as the broadest brush in the conversationalist’s crate.
There is little room for having an opinion, even if it is not strongly held, and even less space for expressing one. If a conversation lulls it is not nice to resuscitate it with a question that elicits a meaningful opinion unless, of course, it resembles “What kinda beer wouldya’ like?”
Allow me to give you an example that shows niceness is no longer a quality worth judging.
Recently I met a perfectly nice young person. Let’s call this person Pat (today’s definition of niceness is oblivious to gender, but I’ll refer to Pat as “he” since English sorely lacks gender-neutral third-person pronouns). Upon meeting Pat I stupidly thought, “Pat seems nice. He smiled when we spoke and, if the number of head nods is any indication, he must’ve thought what I said was interesting.” This alone would not usually motivate me to hang out with someone more than once, but we lived near each other and had mutual friends so we were in contact frequently. Pat drank with us, ate with us, he did everything — yes, that too, with some of us — except engage in our discussions.
Whenever my friends and I were embroiled in a debate, Pat took the role, which he probably thought a nice one, of asking us to stop disagreeing, get along and drink ourselves into a collective stupor. I assume Pat acted so because differences of opinion among friends made him uncomfortable, and not out of a subversive attempt to anger us, but I cannot be sure.
Regardless, as if this nice behavior wasn’t annoying enough, Pat chose to chime in once. We were discussing socioeconomic based affirmative action when he interjected, “I really like diversity, but I hate how black people that are less qualified than me got in and got scholarships.” I resisted calling Pat a dolt and did not cite that his contribution was off topic. I could not, however, allow Pat’s comment to go unrebuked. I explained why what he said was racist and I kid you not, the first comment from the room was, “Shane, it’s not nice to call Pat racist.”
This was when it occurred to me that being nice is a measure of how agreeable a person is. At that instant it became apparent that niceness no longer measures how much someone cares for others or the extent to which a person holds morally justifiable beliefs.
This example is one among many that shows someone can be a nice racist, just like Pat, or more likely a nice bore. So from now on, when your opinion of a third party is asked, please, I beg of you, use words that actually describe personality traits instead of copping out by calling her or him nice, unless of course she or he is.
Shane Seppinni is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. Letters from a Young Curmudgeon appears alternate Mondays this semester.