The Modern Survival Guide #41
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But I’m a nice guy, so you should trust me… right?
Let’s talk about what it means to be “nice.” I think this is important, since our society values “nice” attributes but sometimes people don’t seem to fully grasp what they mean. So — let’s start there. Generally speaking, we use the term “nice” when we probably should be using the terms “polite,” “personable,” or “pleasant.” A nice person says hi in the hall, asks about your health, smiles when they see you, excuses themselves if they bump you, and doesn’t do anything obviously awful or annoying in your presence. They tick the boxes for pleasant social norms.
But folks, that’s it. That’s the exact limit of what we should expect from a “nice” person’s actions. And based on that limit, there are some things we need to stop expecting from “nice” people.
Don’t expect “nice” people to be on your side.
“Nice” people are just polite, pleasant, and friendly. No part of those descriptions indicates that they actually like you, support you, or are loyal to you. And if you think they are, you may very well be disappointed. “Pleasant” is not a synonym for “ally.”
Just because someone is nice to you doesn’t mean that they’re on your team, adhere to your philosophy, or will not stab you in the back. Remember: your trust should be based on actions, not words. We all have that frenemy who smiles to your face and talks trash when you’re not around.
This is evident in politics and national leaders. Here’s a quick tip about politicians: all politicians are charming. All politicians can be “nice” in person. It’s their job. Success in their field requires that they are able to get people to like them, and politicians who aren’t “nice” to their electorate don’t get elected. So you should never, ever make any kind of political decision based on how “nice” you think a politician is. That’s like thinking a stripper loves you because they call you “baby.”
As an object example, it’s worth remembering that the US troops who guarded Saddam Hussein during his trial ended up really liking him. Here’s a man who everyone knew was a horrible person, and yet he was “nice” to the young men guarding him. And that won over people who had every reason and motivation to know better. Don’t be like those people.
Similarly, I lose all respect for national leaders who trust other national leaders based on their personality during summit meetings. An example would be George W. Bush saying he saw Vladimir Putin’s soul. Let’s be very clear: people who rise to high political office may be “nice” people, in that they are charming, polite, and make you feel good; but that doesn’t make them your buddy, and it doesn’t mean they have your interests in mind. Same thing for people in your everyday life.
Don’t expect “nice” people to be law-abiding citizens.
Polite villains are the hallmark of cinema for a reason: the cognitive dissonance that comes with seeing a genteel, polite person flip the switch that sends the hero into a shark tank. It makes them so much more villainous because being nice isn’t something we expect from crooks in normal life.
But of course, that assumption is horribly out of place. Some of the worst criminals in history were described as “nice” people by their neighbors and associates. So obviously being pleasant has no bearing upon one’s criminality.
This has major implications in many, many scams and frauds: it’s worth noting that the majority of computer hacking attempts, for example, succeed because the hacker simply asked the victim for their password and is charming enough that the victim tells them. And the start of many a con is a firm, honest handshake coupled with an open smile.
Remember: few fraudsters, scammers, or crooks will come at you aggressively. Many, if not most of them, will approach you with a smile on their faces. Never, ever trust anyone based on their smile, handshake, or ability to make you laugh.
Don’t expect “nice” people to be competent at their jobs.
Neither “pleasant” nor “polite” qualities are indicative of intelligence or work ethic. Some of the nicest people you know are crap at their work. In many cases, they’re probably only still employed because they’re the nicest people you know.
We all have that one coworker who is just the nicest person on earth but can’t operate Outlook, balance the books, or perform their basic tasks. And we’re always a bit surprised to find this out because they’re so nice, we think that means they must be good to work with. Many a project team has been ruined by the inclusion of one “nice” person who can’t do the work.
Never judge a person’s work ethic, work quality, or work potential based on how “nice” they are. “Nice” people make for happy job environments, but they may not turn out productive work. And on the flip side, never assume that grumpy people are bad at their jobs. Grumpy workers may just be grumpy because they have to deal with so many incompetent “nice” people.
Don’t expect “nice” people to be good people.
Last but not least, this is the big one, the one that we’ve been leading up to: not all “nice” people are good people. “Nice” is not indicative of a person’s moral character. And this is one of the hardest lessons that we have to learn as adults.
This is because whether or not someone is a good person depends on how they treat everyone, whereas whether or not we think they’re “nice” just depends on how they treat us. And it takes a fair amount of moral understanding and experience to make the leap from judging people based on how they treat us to judging them based on how they treat others.
Men have a seriously awful blind spot in this area and it’s called “sexual harassment.” Ladies, if you ever encounter a situation where a man just can’t accept that his friend, neighbor, boss, coworker, or political leader might be a sexual predator, this is why. He’s going through cognitive dissonance caused by his brain trying to reconcile the fact that someone who was super nice to him was not, in fact, nice to women. This is hard for many men to accept; it goes against all our experience with that individual, we want our dudes to be better than that, and we will make up excuses so that they are.¹
We see this kind of phenomenon all the time, though, and not just about sexual harassment.
It’s your racist uncle (we all have one) who is just the sweetest guy to anyone who isn’t black or Jewish. It’s your hyper-religious mother-in-law, who would help anyone with anything as long as they’re Christian, but has no problem denying aid to sinners and followers of other gods. It’s your xenophobic nationalist friend who gives everybody a ride to softball, and buys the beer, but wouldn’t cross the street to piss on a refugee if they were on fire.²
This is common. It’s part of the everyday hypocrisy that comes with living in a society filled with mortal, fallible human beings, and you will encounter it, guaranteed. So as a general rule, remember: just because someone is nice to you does not mean that they are, in fact, nice to everyone or, for that matter, actually a good human being. You cannot afford to set in stone your opinion of others based on your personal interactions; that’s an excellent way to find yourself on the wrong side of history based on a knee-jerk defense.
Conclusion: “Nice” is not a state of being.
Ultimately, being “nice” is a transitory phenomenon. It lasts exactly as long as it takes a person to experience a social interaction, and it is gone immediately thereafter. Base your expectations accordingly.
But still, be nice to people. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being polite and friendly, and being pleasant is usually better than being surly.
¹Fellas: if your friend, neighbor, boss, coworker, or political leader is accused of sexual harassment, that is not a good time for a knee-jerk defense. Because, let’s be honest, they probably did it. I know, I know, they’re innocent until proven guilty and all that but… come on. Men are pigs. You’re a pig, I’m a pig, we’re all pigs; you know it and I know it. Some pigs act on their worst impulses and don’t deserve to play in the barnyard. Deal with it, and don’t be surprised if at least one man you know falls to those impulses.
²Obviously, I do not consider racists, hyper-religious nutjobs, or xenophobic nationalists as “good” people. I have reasons for this, and I will write (and have written) other articles on these subjects.