Stop being so goddamn nice!

Stop being so goddamn nice!   Nice. It slips off your tongue in a sort of plain, unthreatening way, like unsalted margarine. At first glance, nice is not a problem. Nice is not trying to build a wall between Mexico and the USA, nice is not starting wars, nor is…


Stop being so goddamn nice!   Nice. It slips ice. It slips off your tongue in a sort of plain, unthreatening way, like unsalted margarine. At first glance, nice is not a problem. Nice is not trying to build a wall between Mexico and the USA, nice is not starting wars, nor is it tearing Britain out of the European Union. But it won’t stop any of those things from happening either. Nice can be so desperately scared of not being nice that it leaves us stressed and paralysed with inaction. It allows people or organisations to take advantage of our paralysis and it can often times make us anxious or depressed. We should stop being so goddamn nice, for everyone’s sake.


I can say this, because I have always been a “nice guy” and I have experienced all of these feelings first hand. In recent years I have challenged myself to let go of this story, as it is just that, a story. Doing this has helped my confidence enormously, and my guess is that the same could be true for many other “nice” people out there quietly skirting difficult conversations.


I define nice as supressing your true feelings in the pursuit of pleasing those around you. It is a defence mechanism, designed to keep you from upsetting those around you. It is not kindness nor generosity, nor is it the opposite of hatred or anger, if you look nice square in the face, it is rooted in a fear of confrontation and rejection.


In many cases, the perpetual search for a strictly positive and easy conversation makes people highly attuned to the nuances of human interactions, often perceiving threats where none were intended – a phenomenon that has been labelled “social anxiety”. To this end we often over analyse our own comments and contributions and imagine the judgement of others when we stray marginally away from nice, but it is rare that people are focusing on anything other than whether they themselves are coming across nicely. People who do not suffer from this self-questioning are able to go forth with confidence. In fact, whilst we may theoretically take a moral opposition to any behaviour that we deem to be “not-nice”, in practice, we generously reward authenticity and assertiveness in our careers and our personal lives.


Think of that one friend you have, that is bold and authentic, maybe sometimes even rude, they may drive you mad, but we often forgive them their shortcomings much faster than other people because of their unquestionable honesty. Alternatively, the most successful people you know, whilst they may be kind and generous amongst a host of other characteristics, I doubt you would describe them to other people as nice.


Millennials and Gen Z in particular, appear to be generations of people pleasers. Have you ever noticed how we have this bizarre habit of changing the intonation of our voice so that everything is phrased like a question? As if, to simply open one’s mouth is an act so bold it requires a constant check that what we are saying hasn’t rocked the boat, and we may proceed unopposed.


We are also incapable of saying no to things. I often find myself agreeing to several social engagements and balancing them concurrently with the knowledge that at least six will fall through and I probably just want to relax at home anyway. Instead of saying no, I delay this minuscule confrontation and let it build into something worse, simply because I can’t bear to let people down.


When I do say no, it is accompanied by several minutes of justification, followed by a further commitment to make up for the lost time. My phone buzzes constantly requesting my attention, and duly I oblige (whether that’s because I’m hooked to the dopamine hit or I’m scared of missing out on a whatsapp group chat is up for debate).


One might reasonably predict that if we were all nice to each other all the time the world would be a better place, but a healthy level of conflict can improve our ability to navigate the inevitable challenging situations we will face in life. Jonathan Haidt, an evolutionary psychologist, theorises that humans are antifragile. This means, much like our immune system, being exposed to small amounts of manageable stress makes our emotional health more robust.


Gen Z and millennials take longer to grow up. They take longer to have sex, they are less likely to drink, smoke or take drugs, and they are less likely to drive. Whilst on the surface all of these things seem like positives, the reality is, when we eventually fly the nest and are exposed to differing views and a broad range of challenging ideas, we are so underprepared mentally that our psychological wellbeing is at risk. Anxiety and depressoni on university campuses has skyrocketed in recent years.


Haidt argues that the rise of safety culture, paranoid parenting and screen time replacing unstructured unsupervised hours of play for children has led to the inadvertent creation of a fragile generation. In other words, by creating a perpetually “nice” environment, parents strip their children of key lessons that teach them to go forth in the world and confront diverse and evolving challenges with conviction and creativity.


The reasons for our millennial condition of anxiety, stress and burnout is extensive. It would be unwise to suggest that it is simply due to overly attentive parenting and a lack of assertiveness. There is the rise of technology, namely social media, the dissolution of long-term security in the work place – partly due to a robot work force that BTW (we don’t have time to spell that) might take over as the dominant species, an unstable economy that is awful when it’s bad and inflated when it’s good, a polarised political landscape with no end in sight, and a genuine possibility that it all might come crashing down in some apocalyptical climatic catastrophe. The fact that we confront this abstract reality in the melting pot that is our smoking, churning, overpopulated urban environment is enough to challenge even the most fortified baby boomers mentality.


With all this swirling around us digitally on a daily basis, served up in 240 character bite size chunks of panic – it is no wonder we are a bit anxious, but perhaps this makes it more important than ever to question the virtues of nice. In the face of a dynamic and challenging modern environment I want to be competent and durable before nice.


Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish girl who has led the most significant climate change protests ever, is not nice. Greta is assertive and bold as she berates law makers and governments alike claiming, “You lied to us, you gave us false hope.”  She is also not cruel or unkind as she calls for us to employ “Cathedral thinking – to lay the foundation for the future whilst we may still not know exactly how to build the ceiling”. I’m sure many people won’t like Greta, but many more will love her, because she is authentic and true to herself. Such is our appetite for leadership and competence, that a teenage girl from Sweden confronting the world unapologetically can inspire hundreds of thousands of people to stop being nice.


The use of assertiveness can be an entirely negative force and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. We also all know people that we don’t think much of that we would never consider to be “nice” – however, if you are struggling with being too nice I doubt this will ever be your problem. As Jordan Pieterson, the controversial clinical psychologist, so eloquently puts it, “Psychological forces are never unidimensional in their value, and the truly appalling potential of anger and aggression to produce cruelty and mayhem are balanced by the ability of those primordial forces to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty, and danger.”

Many people in modern society have declared that any employment of the “primordial” forces of assertiveness or perhaps even aggression when necessary are morally wrong, but to dull these senses is a misjudgement of human nature. People are often bullied because they can’t bite back, but in practice those that can bite back normally don’t have to.


I was once told that the three most important indicators of a person’s success as an entrepreneur are intelligence, conscientiousness and disagreeability. The first two strike me as obvious and rational, but the third requires more unpacking. On the face of it, one would imagine that to be disagreeable would cause trouble in a company or any collaborative workspace, and this is often the case, however, to be disagreeable is also to constantly question the logic and practicality of what you and those around you are doing. Disagreeing requires us to seek truth and be authentic in what we say and how we act because it puts us under the microscope. It makes sense in my mind that in a failing organisation, after the troublemakers, the first to go are those that are invisible. The nice people that, under duress, might not have the staying power. It is those people that are willing to put their neck out to suggest potentially radical solutions that may stand the test of time.


My hope is that this message will prod you to think about why you might be supressing a thought or a feeling in the future, and whether it is really for the sake of those around you or if in reality are you scared of exposing yourself? In my experience, people generally don’t mind being confronted in a healthy way, it gives them permission to disagree as well, and opens space for a real conversation. Next time you have a chance, confront someone with something tougher than their average interaction, watch as they take a second to get up to speed, and see if you like where it takes you. I think you may be surprised.