When I graduated high school, a friend said something to me I’ll never forget. She said, “Ally, you’re so nice. You might be the nicest person I know. I’ve never heard you say a bad word to or about anyone, and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word to or about you. Never change.”
Honesty, it felt like the highest compliment I could ever receive. I took it as a personal challenge to be “nice” forever.
I did my best to “never change.”
Then, ten years later, I got an e-mail from a girl I didn’t remember from high school. A classmate of ours had recently passed away, and she and I crossed paths at the funeral. Seeing me again reminded her of a story.
She asked if I remembered a day, sophomore year, when I was walking up the stairs with two of my friends, and a girl in front of us tripped. She asked if I remembered what my two friends said to that girl, that they laughed and made fun of her under their breath, and that the girl ran off, crying.
Worst of all, she asked if I remembered what I did next. I stood back, she told me, eyes wide, and mouth shut. I didn’t tease. Didn’t laugh. Wasn’t mean. But I didn’t say anything to her, or to my friends.
She asked me if I knew she was that girl.
I read the words over and over, to see if the memory would come back, but it wouldn’t. I felt a little panicked, actually, trying to summon at least a fuzzy movie in my mind, so I could offer some explanation for why I had done such a thing. I was nice after all. I was the nice girl. Why would the nice girl do something like that?
In that moment, a painful realization came crashing over me: niceness isn’t everything.
For so many years I worked hard to be nice, trying to live up to that story my friend had told about me. In one sense, it felt good and right and admirable to be the kind of person who never said a bad word about anyone else, and who never gave anyone reason to say a bad word about me.
But now, as I thought through the past ten years of my life, I realized being “nice” wasn’t doing for me what I wanted it to do.
Being “nice” was preventing me from saying what I thought about things.
It prevented me from telling my friends that I thought laughing at someone for tripping on the stairs was rude (for fear of being too harsh or judgmental) and prevented me from telling the girl who tripped that I knew how she felt. I’d been laughed at, too.
I wouldn’t want that girl to feel like I was singling her out, or overstepping my bounds.
I wouldn’t want my friends to feel like I was rejecting them.
It prevented me, years later, from expressing political opinions or theological opinions or even opinions about where I wanted to eat dinner — which in turn prevented me from having authentic, meaningful relationships with people. In some cases, friends would beg me to say what I thought, but instead of being honest, I would mimic those around me, and then (of course) feel invisible.
When you can’t tell the truth about yourself, you cease to exist as a person.
Being “nice” kept me from doing what I was made to do.
Trying to manage my “nice girl” image kept me trapped, working to control other’s opinions of me, rather than doing what I knew was right. I couldn’t send an e-mail or even a tweet without hours of deliberation. I stayed on the margins of my life, scared to get into the thick of things, terrified that I was going to hurt someone, or offend someone, or mess everything up.
I avoided jobs I wanted, parties I wished I could attend, and friendships I longed for, with the excuse that they could be the wrong job, wrong party, wrong relationship, or that I would make a mess of them.
If I didn’t do anything, I couldn’t do anything wrong. Right?
I’m starting to see how doing nothing is sometimes the worst thing you can do.
These days, I’m using the word “kind” instead of the word “nice.”
Because I think the quality my friend noticed in me on that last day of high school is an important one. I care about people, and want them to feel loved, noticed and important. But “niceness” as I defined it all those years was actually getting the way of what I was trying to accomplish. Sometimes niceness isn’t very kind at all.
For some, the words might be interchangeable. But for me, it helps to make a distinction.
- Niceness stays quiet. Kindness speaks up.
Niceness is toxic. Kindness is healing.
Niceness lies to keep the peace. Kindness knows the only way to make peace is to tell the truth.
Niceness holds back. Kindness moves forward with humility, gentleness and grace.
Thank goodness we change after high school. And thank goodness I’m learning, slowly, to quit being so nice.