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:
- A general pattern of putting other people's needs ahead of theirs.
- Being too afraid of upsetting people or hurting their feelings. Even if it involves doing something they'd rather not, they'll choose that over possibly making someone feel bad. For example, a people pleaser may agree to hang out with a classmate whose company they don't enjoy because they don't want to have to turn them down.
- Being overly agreeable - Going along with what other people think or want, and holding back their own opinions and preferences. This often leads others to remark that they seemingly have no personality of their own.
- Always appearing cheerful and friendly, even in situations where a typical person would be annoyed or sad. If asked how they are they'll often insist that they're fine and it's all "no big deal".
- Having a really hard time saying no. They may be taken advantage of and do more than their fair share of work on the job, or at school during group assignments. They're the friend who's always helping someone move or taking care of their cat, even though it's totally inconvenient for them.
- Having trouble standing up for themselves. People can treat them like crap or take their friendship for granted and they'll smile and laugh it off. They may even think they could never confront a jerk, because it might make them feel bad.
- Feeling overly responsible for the emotions and decisions of other people. If a co-worker is acting rude and moody they think, "What have I done wrong to make them feel this way? I have to try to cheer them up." They would never consider an alternative like, "Wow, they're acting like a douche. It's not cool that they're treating me that way" or, "If they're in a pissy mood that's fine, but it's their own job to get over it and I'm going to avoid them until they do."
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.
"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:
- Doing lots of unasked for favors for friends and co-workers
- Giving lots of little gifts, like buying people lunch or always getting friends drinks at the pub
- Always being available to provide practical or emotional support (e.g., helping a friend study, being there for them after they went on a bad date)
- Always being the first to offer help if someone mentions they need it
- Being extra aware of other people's feelings, wants, and needs and going out of their way to accommodate them
- Making an effort to be friendly and considerate to people who have already shown they don't like them, or who have disrespected them in some way
- Changing their opinions to what they believe certain other people want to hear
- Trying to behave in a way that they think is the opposite of how selfish jerks act.
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:
- Extremely nice, giving people may be taken advantage of. Freeloader acquaintances will happily let them pick up the check every time they go out. Needy friends may want endless emotional support and suck them dry.
- They may be looked down on as weak, insecure suck ups who feel they have to "buy" people's friendship because they have nothing else to offer.
- They may be seen as lacking judgment and common sense. Most people know better than to be so loose with their time, money, and emotional energy.
- Many people feel uncomfortable when someone gives them too many unsolicited gifts and favors. They don't like feeling like they've been forced into a position where they're obligated to pay them back in some way. Since most people are decent and don't want to think of themselves as mooches, that's how they'll see the situation.
- To continue to previous point, there can be unintended side effects to making people feel indebted. Someone may hang out with a "nice" giver, but they'll start to see it as something they're doing to fulfill an obligation, not because they actually like the person. Some people will resolve their internal discomfort about being in "debt" by deciding, "Hey, if they want to do all these favors for me, that's fine. It's their choice to act that way though, and they have to know they're doing more than most people would. They can't reasonably expect me to pay them back, so I won't." A second way people make themselves feel better is by losing respect for the "nice" giver. It's a bit of mental gymnastics. If they see the person as a loser then they don't need to feel guilty about accepting free things from them without any intention of evening the score.
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.