Stop Being Nice*

I can guarantee that everyone who read the title of this article took in a sharp breath, shook their head in disapproval (metaphorically or literally) and immediately disagreed. We are all taught and encouraged to be a good and nice person because niceness is the essential and critical characteristic marking a civilised individual who treats others with respect and thoughtfulness. Being raised in Britain I found the concept of niceness almost inherent in our global reputation; from film to literary portrayals, the British person (if not cast as a villain) is a bumbling, incredibly nice individual, who stammers and apologises over the cutest and most innocent of blunders (which tend to not even be their own). The epitome of British niceness is encapsulated perfectly in Hugh Grant’s character William in Notting Hill (1999). The film features a particular scene when William notices on the CCTV camera system in his bookshop that someone is stealing a book, and the scene plays out as follows:

WILLIAM: Excuse me.


WILLIAM: Bad news.

THIEF: What?

WILLIAM: We’ve got a security camera in this bit of the shop.


WILLIAM: So, I saw you put that book down your trousers.

THIEF: What book?

WILLIAM: The one down your trousers.

THIEF: I haven’t got a book down my trousers.

WILLIAM: Right — well, then we have something of an impasse. I tell you what — I’ll call the police…If I’m wrong about the whole book-down-the-trousers scenario, I really apologise.

THIEF: Okay — what if I did have a book down my trousers?

WILLIAM: Well, ideally, when I went back to the desk, you’d remove the Cadogan guide to Bali from your trousers, and either wipe it and put it back, or buy it. See you in a sec.

This scene is nothing short of charming; the elitist Hollywood actress (played by Julia Roberts) watches the whole situation and begins to fall in love with William, no doubt infatuated by his sweet, nice nature. The situation would have played out differently, however, had the thief not been the hopeless dud that he was; having worked in bookshops myself for five years, and retail for over eight, I’ve found thieves don’t have such a guilty conscience. Whilst approaching them with wit and confidence is a useful tactic to try and shame them for their ridiculous and illegal behaviour (as William does initially), his niceness quickly drops William into the submissive and accommodating character when he really shouldn’t be. William lacks the confidence in his own volition: he saw, without a shadow of a doubt, the man stick a book down his trousers, yet allows the man to deny the truth and give him an apologetic ultimatum. William apologises to a thief for catching him breaking the law and slips away meekly in fear of upsetting or embarrassing the thief.

Many British people, like myself, watch this scene and laugh empathetically, as William’s behaviour likely reflects our own were we in the same situation: but none of us sees that this isn’t something to be proud of. It’s not productive behaviour, it was ultimately submissive and unassertive. William’s own lack of confidence and self-esteem allowed himself to be questioned when he was undoubtedly in the right, and it wouldn’t have made him any weaker to have politely turned to the thief when he claims “I haven’t got a book down my trousers” and respond:

WILLIAM: I’m afraid, dear chap, I’m not the idiot you assume me to be: I saw you put the Cadogan guide to Bali down your trousers. Now please remove it immediately and leave this store. You are no longer welcome here, and should you ever return I will call the police.

The rewritten response is less comical, less nice and is, instead, more forceful; but it remains polite and respectful (which are those much-admired British mannerisms which society insists we uphold even against those, I repeat, breaking the law). Being nice is regarded as charming and modest and is encouraged and fostered in the British in the same way confidence is in young Americans. It is universally understood that to be anything other than nice is to be nasty or rude to interrupt people when they’re talking or insult someone. The antonyms of the manner include causing unnecessary difficulty for others, being impolite or brutally honest, speaking your mind or disagreeing to do what is asked of you, raising concerns when the majority haven’t noticed, not going along with the flow, throwing in a curveball opinion, not apologising for being in someone else’s way… from this brief list of ‘anti-nice’ behaviour, you may have already picked up on the issues surrounding the concept of niceness which, I will argue, cause it to be a problematic and useless idiosyncrasy.

getting nice never got me anywhere, and trust me, I was one of the nicest people you would ever meet

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the phrase “Nice guys finish last”, and whilst its usual context and target audience is men in the dating world, the phrase is applicable to nice people in general. I’m afraid I have to turn to my own personal experience and be brutally honest with you, reader: getting nice never got me anywhere, and trust me, I was one of the nicest people you would ever meet. I was nice to every bully in my school, nice to every employer and colleague I worked with (especially to the ones who treated me like absolute sh*t), and was even more exceptionally nice to an abusive partner who would perpetually belittle me, mock me, yell at me, pick me apart, criticise me and hurt me physically. I was constantly buying gifts for people I barely knew because I had acknowledged their somewhat hostile treatment of me and wanted to give them ample evidence towards their unwarranted behaviour. I would perpetually give compliments to people who I knew bitched about me behind my back and even took the blame at things for work which wasn’t my fault just so I could save another colleague from being berated and potentially given ‘their last warning’.

None of this behaviour got me anywhere: no one stopped bullying me at school, the employers and colleagues who treated me like sh*t continued to treat me that way. I was never promoted or praised forever bending over backwards and completing other people’s work tasks, my abusive partner continued to emotionally and physically abuse me to the point that the relationship terminated, and I was always left in an emotionally and financially poorer position than I was before. I couldn’t understand it; I was so nice. Why did I not feel happy, why did people treat me the way that they did?

What I learned I learned the hard way, but what I can tell you emphatically is that being nice gets you nowhere in life; it doesn’t make you or the surrounding people any happier, and it is a completely futile characteristic that we as a society should cease to endorse. However, when I advise you to stop being nice I am not telling you to be the opposite, to be nasty or inconsiderate; I am merely encouraging you to focus your attention on being something other than nice. The astute amongst you will have taken into consideration the use of an asterisk in the title and perhaps continued reading (or unconsciously skipped ahead down the page) in search of the associated footnote and found the following:

(*Be Kind Instead)

One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in life is that niceness and kindness, whilst generally regarded as synonymous, are actually two very different things. To clarify the distinction, let’s take a look at the two definitions:

Nice: adj; pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance; socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous.

Kind: adj; having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature; used especially of persons and their behaviour; characterised by mercy, and compassion.

At face value the distinction between the two doesn’t seem incredibly important, nor is it very obvious. Both traits are undeniably positive, but if we dissect the two definitions we can identify a deeper root to these two behaviours which are steered by differing motives, therefore characterising two very different individuals. A “nice” person is one who conforms their behaviour to what they believe society sees as “nice.” A “kind” person doesn’t necessarily care about what “society” thinks of them; they act out of a deep-rooted love for their fellow living beings.

Whilst kindness is rooted in love, niceness is rooted in fear. The person who feels weaker has an evolutionary imperative to be nice to gain the favour of the stronger person. Many of us learn from a young age that being nice keeps us emotionally safer and therefore employ it as an effective defence mechanism. Rather than shout at people or engage in arguments, whenever we feel uncomfortable or threatened we resort to niceness, deducing that it is better to be on people’s good sides rather than their bad. In many demonstrated cases of niceness it would be easy to substitute the term ‘nice’ with ‘submissive’, but that wouldn’t be beneficial for anyone, as it would only potentially trigger a sense of shame in any reader identifying with the present article, and those readers tend to, on the majority, have a cripplingly low enough self-esteem already. There is nothing to be ashamed of identifying within this article; niceness is a prime example of a deeply ingrained evolutionary behaviour. It stems from feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem which ultimately seek amendment in receiving validation and approval from others.

The central motivation of being nice is not for the benefit of others, but for one’s own self-esteem.

Nice people are afraid to say no to someone or call out behaviour they disagree with in fear they will upset the offender to the point of being disliked. Overly-nice people try to please so that they can feel good about themselves. They are nice to protect their own perceived reputation; they avoid upsetting or disagreeing with someone not primarily to protect the feelings of the other, but to protect themselves from feeling guilt or rejection. They tend to be people-pleasers who always say yes, go along with the crowd, takes on every responsibility their boss throws at them without hesitation, and spends copious amounts of money on gifts for people who they barely know or speak to, all because they have a worrying, anxious, nagging feeling person X doesn’t like them very much, so will compensate monetarily in the hope their demonstrated selfless generosity will attest to their niceness, ultimately disqualifying any reason as to why person X dislikes them. The nice person does all this not to benefit others, but for the reputation of benefiting others.

The trouble with being nice is that its extensive range of issues requires a self-reflective, and almost egocentric, view on the world. When one analyses whether one is being nice, one focuses entirely on oneself and how they are perceived by others. The central motivation of being nice is not for the benefit of others, but for one’s own self-esteem. The nice person only apologises to the person who has bumped into them in fear that their very presence may have upset or angered that person; they deal with any potential conflicts by placating the other person because they cannot bear to have anyone upset with them.

Kindness, however, is a trait of a self-assured, confident and compassionate individual. Kindness emerges from people who are loving and giving out of the goodness of their hearts. They take responsibility for their own self-care whilst simultaneously engaging in generous and altruistic behaviour. A kind person has good self-esteem, and loves themselves as much as they do others; but from this self-love, they are able to set good limits and learn to be assertive. Ultimately, they expect to be treated with respect and don’t allow themselves to be treated otherwise. Nice people, on the other hand, bend over backwards to be obliging. They are desperate for approval and are therefore often mistreated or taken advantage of. They continue to over-give and overly care for others in the hopes of being cared for themselves which results in nice people finding themselves in toxic and unfulfilled codependent relationships. Nice people are extremely careful not to offend anyone or expressing a negative emotion. Whilst they are wonderfully thoughtful in their drive to always be good to others, they do this to the detriment of themselves, often even avoiding to ask for what they need for fear of creating conflict.

Quitting the desire to people please was an extremely difficult habit to break; I was unsure of how to present myself as a good person and continue making meaningful connections with people without risking becoming a doormat again.

I’m uncertain if the propaganda of being nice at all costs is indoctrinated mainly in women or British people in general, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to apply it to everyone, regardless of nationality, race or gender. At school, we are taught to always play nice, and prioritise niceness over-expressing distaste, anger, discomfort or upset; and whilst it is essential children are taught to be friendly and gentle to each other, there’s a fine line between teaching children courtesy and obsequiousness. Being nice has unforeseen consequences; years of suppressing “bad” feelings, and frustration from needs not being met, boil to the surface and express themselves in negative ways which can be potentially damaging to the nice person. Having established a standard for themselves in which it would be unacceptable for them to express anger, nice people can turn to addictive behaviours, fatty foods, alcohol, or bury themselves in distractions which can range along a scale of severity from extreme shopping sprees to eating disorders to compensate for their mounting frustration. Due to their sincere ethical and moral standards which underlies everything they do, the nice person is reluctant to change their behaviour despite the consequences they experience, and inadvertently create more unhappiness for themselves.

Quitting the desire to people please was an extremely difficult habit to break; I was unsure of how to present myself as a good person and continue making meaningful connections with people without risking becoming a doormat again. What I had to keep in the forefront of my mind was that by ceasing to be nice I wasn’t metamorphosing into a bad person; I was merely shifting my motivational drive in life from being nice to being kind. The only thing this transformation required was a positive and fundamental shift of intention. I identified that my need to please was, at its core, motivated by a need for validation that I shouldn’t expect from others. My validity resides in myself and myself only; whilst it’s nice to be liked, it is better to be loved by yourself. Whist I did have good intentions at heart for being a nice person, I couldn’t deny the fact that my niceness was driven by a deep need for external validation and approval that I lacked in myself, therefore converting all of my nice deeds into, undeniably, self-serving actions. I didn’t want to be selfish, on any level. I wanted to be known as someone who was kind regardless of what she received in return because she didn’t need anything from people: all she wanted to do was give where and when she could.

Taking responsibility for your own self-esteem and sense of self-worth requires a lot of strength and bravery

I didn’t want external validation to be my only source of self-worth and self-esteem. I wanted to be free of fear and self-hatred, the fluctuating levels of which had always depended on other people’s perception of me. I wanted to allow myself to be happy and add to my happiness through altruism and generosity. I accepted that my self-worth would never be improved by being a pleaser, I couldn’t rely on other people to make me feel worthwhile, because this source is unreliable, unstable, uncertain and immeasurable. I didn’t want to have my unconscious motive behind every good deed I did to be a silent plea for validation in return. I’ve always known and upheld the notion we shouldn’t give to receive, and I had to learn to apply that to non-materialistic giving as well.

Being kind involves being inoffensive, compassionate, understanding, thoughtful, generous and empathetic, all qualities which are undeniably associated with being nice; but being kind has no ulterior motive. Taking responsibility for your own self-esteem and sense of self-worth requires a lot of strength and bravery because it’s the difficult thing to do. It’s easier to rely on others to do things for you: it’s easier to get other people to like you, to make other people smile or laugh, to be praised and complimented by other people. It’s much harder to do that for yourself. The only way I learned to start loving myself, something I’ve never believed I deserve to do, is by telling myself that by loving myself I would be better for other people. Loving myself would make me a better person for others because I’d stop being a user. I’d stop using other people in my life to compensate for something I was lacking in myself. Until this point, I wasn’t focussed heart and mind on really meeting other people’s needs, but trying to meet my own.

Of course, this meant I had to let go of my perfect reputation. I stopped saying sorry every time someone bumped into me, I called people out (very politely, but assertively) when I didn’t agree with what they were saying or doing. I started saying no, I started being more honest with people and stopped making awkward excuses for things like I used to (such as agreeing to attend a party I didn’t want to go to and then awkwardly lying about being ill on the day. Now I just say thank you for the invitation, I really appreciate it, but I’m afraid I have other plans. This isn’t a lie, I will undoubtedly have work or research to do. Or, if it’s something I wouldn’t be interested in attending, like a game of beer pong or a football match, I say so politely. Why? Because I own who I am, I’m a more honest person with people, and whilst it may not be the answer that makes them the happiest, it’s who I am, and I shouldn’t try to be false to them if I want to form a genuine relationship with them, be it personal or professional).

My overt-niceness originated from a deep-set belief that I deserved all the fierce bullying I experienced at school for unexplainable reasons. I was always confused as to why people treated me so cruelly and so viciously, so I extended myself to give people no reason to treat me this way. I made myself the nicest possible girl I could be to protect myself. I thought that by maybe treating bad people nicely they would go softer on me, maybe even like me back. Guess what? Nothing changed. If anything I was left feeling more confused; I just couldn’t understand. No matter how nice I was the bullying didn’t stop, and I just couldn’t fathom what I was doing wrong. I was determined though not to give them any ammunition and therefore continued to be nice as it was safer than being defiant to them.

What I learned growing up is four-fold:

  1. Everyone has different tastes in life, therefore not everyone is going to like you. You could be the juiciest, freshest peach in the world, and there will still be millions of people who hate peaches.

  2. You can’t please everyone all the time, so why strive to? Aim to please those who you can, when you can, because you respect and like them, and want to make them happy. Be the kindest, most honest, sincere version of yourself at all times. There will be times when you won’t match someone’s standards: that’s all you can do in life, so there’s no point worrying about it.

  3. You will never know what is going on in someone’s head. Everyone is struggling and suffering in some way, and they may express their emotions and reactions to this through hurtful or unkind behaviour. At times, you may be a victim of this behaviour. Do not take everything that is done or said to you personally. If you cannot fathom a reason as to why someone is treating you a certain way (i.e. after some reflection you cannot think of a scenario where you may have possibly offended them or did something wrong), then chances are you are not personally responsible for their behaviour and therefore should not allow it to affect your self-esteem.

  4. Some people are just douchebags, plain and simple. There are some real, genuine, horrible people out there. Absolute jerks, narcissists, psychopaths, selfish egocentrics who enjoy hurting people, being rude, bullying and pushing people around. I didn’t really believe this until I met and dated someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He was cruel, hurtful, and had absolutely no empathy or ownership for his bad behaviour. He 100% didn’t see anything wrong with what he was doing, he saw himself as an absolute god of perfection… bad people exist. There’s nothing we can do about that, unfortunately, except stay away from them and pray they don’t breed.

It’s wonderful to want to do good for other people, and in no way would I want anyone to think I think badly of nice people (nice people are by far the greater power in this world); but nice people are finding themselves abused and trampled on by bad people because niceness doesn’t encourage self-love. Due to its submissive status, being nice doesn’t make effective change in this world; to counteract evil we need something more powerful, more forceful. We need kindness; we need good people who have self-worth and conviction to remain emotionally and mentally secure whilst they make a positive and inspiring impact in the world. People don’t really remember what you do for them, but they always remember how you made them feel. Being nice involves constantly monitoring how others make you feel; kindness focuses on how you make others feel. When you have low self-esteem, it’s hard to change your habit in finding your value in other people, but it is the essential first step to self-love. You’ll find that by shifting your intention from being nice to being kind automatically comes with a shift in focus; your motive for being good becomes more sincere, and you’ll find yourself far more fulfilled with the new positive impact you’re making on people: from that self-love will blossom within you in no time.