The Treachery of Niceness

Some of my most important life lessons have come through either 1) the suffering of hard experiences or 2) the suffering of hard truths.

The suffering of hard experience is not too hard to find. You can get it fairly easily at the gym, on the trail, at work, or in any work to solve a big problem.

But the suffering of hard truths – hearing what you really need to hear from others – is getting rarer and rarer. Our social rules are now skewed toward immediate, unearned affirmation, even from strangers.

“You’re fine just the way you are” is probably the quintessential expression of how we are *supposed* to respond to people whose self-image is coming into conflict with the standards of the outside world.

How many of us have heard this when we have been at some of our most awkward, foolish, self-destructive, or self-inhibiting moments?

How much more helpful would it have been if a man or woman had taken us aside and said this instead?

“Look, Tommy, you have a lot going for you. But the reason the other kids/adults don’t like you is because you dress like a slob/are overweight/don’t do your part on the job/drink too much/act like a submissive mouse/don’t have a clue about driving.”

If we say any combination of these things, we become guilty of being *not nice,* and we take on the risk that the person may respond negatively. Tell ing the truth is uncomfortable. But we do give a gift which Tommy will never get from any of the nice old men and women who repeat the “fine just the way you are, keep on believing” platitudes.

Imagine it: Tommy is swimming in a sea of confusion. Everyone tells him he’s fine, but none of the other kids like him. When you finally tell him what’s wrong with him, he can actually DO something about the problem. He may be mad at you in the moment, but later he will remember you as one out of a hundred people who cared enough to tell the truth.

And when he realizes you told the truth, how will he think of all his other “friends” who didn’t? In trying to be “nice” they usually served their own comfort more than his wellbeing. He couldn’t be blamed for thinking of them as treacherous.

I don’t owe to everyone a full evaluation of their life choices. But if I have the chance to deliver a hard truth in a loving way, I hope I’ll take it.

Photo by Liudmila Luchkina on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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