Ways People Can Be Seen As "Nice" In The Bad Sense Of The Word

This article isn't going to bad mouth genuine niceness. It's about all the ways people can refer to someone as "nice" when they're using the word with a more negative connotation. One thing I'll do is keep the discussion focused on social relationships. The topic of Nice Guys and dating has already been covered to death (though some of the ideas I'll talk about still carry over to that issue).

Before I get started I've got a book to recommend if you'd like to do more reading on the subject: No More Mr. Nice Guy by Dr. Robert Glover. The book is aimed at men and does devote space to dating and relationships. However, it explains some broad principles of maladaptive "niceness" that anyone could benefit from knowing. Some of the points in this article draw from its ideas.

"Nice" = "I don't dislike them as a person, but they're not for me"

This is when someone says something like, "Why didn't I invite Brad to the party? ...Uh, he's nice and all, but he's not really my style..." When "nice" is used this way it just means, "I want to emphasize I don't hate them as an individual. They seem pleasant and like they have good intentions. However, they're not someone I'd choose to be friends with." If you find out you've been called "nice" in this way there isn't any deeper meaning to it or any feedback you can use. It's a generic positive adjective being used to qualify a point.

"Nice" = Bland

Someone can refer to a person as "nice" when they see them as being bland and boring. I think in this case "nice" serves as a description that's only used when nothing else seems to apply, and the person doesn't want to say something negative. Their thought process may go like this, "Hm.. ...they haven't done anything to really show me what their personality is like. They haven't told me anything that would lead me to believe they have interests or opinions they feel passion for. Even their clothes and grooming are blah and nondescript and give me no hints about what makes them tick. But they seem friendly. They don't appear to be total jerks. They're... nice."

If you're "nice" in this sense I think the thought above gives you a good idea of what you may need to work on. Express yourself more and show people what you're about. Give them something to go on. Even if not everyone decides they want to get to know you better at least you're not being overlooked because you create no impression at all.

"Nice" = "Not enough of an edge for my tastes"

In general people like to hang out with friends who have a similar level of "edge" as them. A guy who parties, gambles, and makes lots of crude jokes probably isn't going to click with someone who's never been inside a nightclub and winches whenever they hear a swear word. Someone may label a person who's less edgy as "nice" (e.g., "She's one of those nice girls. I don't think she'd want to go to the bar with us.")

Most of the time differing edginess levels aren't a problem. Everyone has their own style and values, and ends up sorting themselves into liked-minded groups. Many people couldn't care less about how unedgy they are and find friends who feel the same way.

A lack of edge can be a liability if someone is open to hanging out with edgier people, but they have a hard time of it because they're seen as too naive and wholesome. Note that if someone is extremely non-edgy the "edgier" people they're open to being friends with may be nothing more than typical adults who are decent overall, but who still do some minor "bad" things like drinking on the weekends.

"Nice" = "Too much of a wimpy people pleaser"

People pleasers are often told they're "too nice". They engage in outwardly nice behaviors, but their actions are motivated by a fear of being disliked as well as poor boundaries and assertiveness skills. They're nice when other people wouldn't be. Some behaviors that fall into this category are:

The problems this style causes are pretty clear. Aside from getting walked all over, most people don't respect someone who acts too deferential and spineless. Getting past these problems involves a combination of learning assertiveness skills and accepting that it's okay, in fact much healthier, to put your own needs first. This isn't always easy to achieve. People pleasing can be a deep-rooted pattern. It can feel quite alien and uncomfortable at first to start thinking and acting differently.

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"Nice" = "Being overly giving, thoughtful, and considerate as a way to get people to want to spend time with you"

"Nice" people pleasers are driven by fear. Another motivation some "nice" people have is that somewhere along the line they started to believe that being nicer than average is a valuable social commodity that will pay off in the form of friendships, romantic relationships, promotions, appreciation, respect, and so on. Often they're not fully conscious that they're operating on this principle. Some of the nice things they may do are:

Again, some of their actions may overlap with those of a people pleaser, but their motivations are different. A people pleaser may help a friend move because he can't say no, even though he doesn't want to do it. The type of nice person I'm describing in this section will happily volunteer to help their friend move, even if it is a hassle, because on some level they think it will earn them points. Naturally, some "nice" people hold a mix of both sets of motivations.

People who are nice in this way are often disappointed when their ultra-nice style doesn't translate into the relationships and admiration they hoped it would. The fact is most people don't place a huge amount of value on above-and-beyond niceness. It's not that they disregard niceness completely. It's just that, outside of rougher areas, the majority of humans are pretty nice. Being fairly nice is a bare minimum social expectation. Once someone meets that standard, additional niceness isn't given a ton of weight. When they're choosing who to be friends with, people place more importance on other factors like having similar interests and values, sharing the same sense of humor, whether they have fun together, etc. If a "nice" person does something for them they'll still take it and enjoy it in the moment, but it's not going to really sway their overall opinion on whether they're desirable as a friend.

Not only that, but above-average niceness can be a liability:

If you're "nice" in this way you need to realize that your preferred strategy for getting what you want in relationships isn't very effective. You don't need to do a 180 and become a complete jerk. Be as nice as the next person, but nothing more. Learn to draw people to you through other aspects of your personality. Get in the habit of digging into and monitoring your motivations and change course if you catch yourself thinking, "If I do these nice things for this person I'll get something from it." You'll likely be surprised how often you do it.

Don't feel you have to do things for people in order for them to like you. Many great friends hardly ever do things like buy each other drinks. It's not that they're against the idea, it just doesn't occur to them. When they go to a pub they assume they'll each pay for themselves. They enjoy each other's company for a dozens other reasons.

This is another pattern that can be difficult to break. Some "nice" people have a hard time letting go of the idea that they should live in a world where they'll be rewarded for their approach. They may repeat their ineffective strategy over the years, only to grow more and more disillusioned when they never seem to get what they need from their relationships. Unconsciously they may believe that if they do nice things for someone, it's only fair that person give them what they want in return (e.g., "If I do a bunch of favors for this classmate, they'll like me and want to be friends", "If I'm extra supportive to my roommate during her hard times, she'll appreciate it and be more likely to clean up after herself"). When they aren't given what they're "owed" they feel cheated and resentful. It's important to accept that "niceness" isn't an inherently valuable currency, and when you're extra nice to people they don't have to give you anything in return. A few are even selfish and will use you. Only be nice when it's something you'd be happy to do for its own sake, with no expectation of any benefits for yourself.

Try to shed the idea that niceness is a rare treasure. Some people mistakenly believe most humans aren't very nice, so if they are they'll stand out. This is misguided in two ways: 1) As I said earlier, most people are fairly nice. (There are exceptions for sure, and you may have gotten unlucky and met too many of them, but I still think the decent folk outnumber the bad.) 2) If the majority people actually weren't nice, then niceness still wouldn't have much value, because all the jerks would see it as weak, naive, and an invitation to exploit someone.