Getting past ‘nice’ as a social construct

When I was in Year 4 (3rd Grade), my awesome teacher (who completely turned my academic life around, but that’s another story!) banned the word ‘nice’. We weren’t allowed to write it and we weren’t allowed to say it. I seem to remember she had a big word cloud on the wall of all the alternatives we could use… Or was that another teacher? Anyway…

 

That bit of her awesome influence did not stick. I still use ‘nice’. And, despite all the railing against the word and its connotations from primary school teachers and men’s romance advice columnists and pop Christian writers alike, it’s still alive, healthy, and doing well. And we all have a mental image of what a ‘nice guy’/’nice girl’ is, and the vast majority of us appreciate people who correspond with that mental image. Most of us Christians also could boil down a lot of our attempts to improve our attitudes and behaviours towards others to ‘being nicer to them’ and ‘being a nice person’. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

 

The problem is: what is nice? For me, what I usually mean by nice is considerate and caring. But the older I get and the more I learn about myself and the people around me, the more I realise that some of my mental impression of these things is based on genuine Christian values, and some is based on social constructs that might have a grain of truth but are really oversimplified.

Examples:

Some qualities that will contribute to me thinking someone is nice:

  • He tries to understand how others feel, and tries to make them feel happier, appreciated, and cared for.
  • She will put herself out in order to help someone else.
  • He tries to see others in a positive light, to appreciate their good points, and to forgive their bad points.
  • She rarely say mean or unnecessarily unkind things to other people.
  • He is easy to chat with and puts me in a good mood
  • She remembers things I tell her about myself and my life and ask after those things with interest.
  • He says things to me that make me feel like he admires me and he always seems pleased to see me.
  • She doesn’t get angry or display unpredictable or frequent “negative” emotions.

Some qualities that will contribute to me thinking someone is not nice:

  • He tries to have things his own way all the time, and get annoyed whenever things don’t happen as he wants.
  • She talks non-stop about herself and her life, and rarely ask other people about themselves and rarely show any interest in things other people say that don’t relate to her and her interests.
  • He agrees to meet up and do things together, but then frequently arrives very late, cancels at the last minute whenever he feels like there’s something else he’d prefer to do right then, stands me up frequently, and never sticks around to help clean up after meals, parties, etc.
  • She’s not short of money, but always expects me to pay for everything, because she likes other people paying for things as often as possible as it leaves her more money to spend on herself.
  • He doesn’t write ‘Dear X/hi/hey/etc.’ at the start of messages, nor sign off in any way at the end, he just sends very brief, straight-to-the-point questions or statements, even to colleagues and people he doesn’t know well.
  • She is very slow to reply to messages, often doesn’t reply at all if the message doesn’t contain a question or just replies with a thumbs up emoticon.
  • He is constantly telling me things I’ve done wrong or things I could improve on, and how to do better.
  • She doesn’t laugh at my jokes, or even muster a polite smile of acknowledgement.

[The ‘he’s and ‘she’s above are random, and none of these statements correspond to specific people I know!]

How many of these correlate with Christian understandings of what love is, and how many are pretty much social constructs?

 

The first four in each list, in most circumstances, I think do correspond to real Christian values. The last four, I’ve come to realise, are much more about what society and my life experiences have taught me that ‘polite’ behaviour is, and I tend to equate that unthinkingly with ‘nice’ i.e. considerate and caring. This means I can moralise behaviour that isn’t really about morality at all, but more about different social and cultural understandings of politeness. Someone isn’t more or less loving to their neighbour because they do or don’t remember lots of things other people tell them, or because they do or don’t express a lot of emotions that I automatically tend to perceive as ‘negative’ (e.g. anger, discontent), or because they do or don’t have a greeting & sign-off on most of their messages.

I know, as a Christian, I shouldn’t judge people. And so it shouldn’t matter so much anyway whether people are nice or not: I should try my best to love them regardless. I do aim to do this, but I know there are far too many times when I don’t really try or I fail. But sometimes, I think, even as a Christian, it is permissible – even good? – to have any opinion on whether someone’s behaviour is loving or not. (This is not the same as judging someone, I think, so long as it doesn’t come with a mentality of thinking that I’m better than them, or that their sins are unforgivable or shocking or worse than mine, or that they won’t be saved.) For example, I think this is often necessary when: weighing up whether to appoint someone to a position of leadership or influence in a church or pastoral organisation; whether to set a boundary to protect oneself and others and/or to request that someone changes their behaviour; whether they have sinned against oneself – in which case one recognises that there is something to forgive and forgives it – or not; whether they are someone to take as a role model, and look up to, imitate, and be guided by; whether to marry someone.

 

And then, of course, the true meaning of loving behaviour also matters when examining ourselves. What if I feel like I’m doing things right, and improving at loving other people, because:

  • I’ve developed my social intelligence and am good at putting people at ease;
  • I’ve got faster at replying to messages and always reply with something friendly even when I’m not sure if they need a response or not;
  • nowadays I hardly ever show any negative emotions I might be feeling;
  • I’ve got into the habit of always beginning and signing-off messages in a very polite/friendly fashion?

Do you know what? That hasn’t got much to do with loving my neighbour. That’s mostly to do with understanding and complying better with the codes of politeness in the social circles I move in, and ticking ‘this worldly’ boxes of ‘polite’ behaviour. If I’m seeing those things as acts of love, I’m misunderstanding what love is, and what mentality and behaviours I should be striving above all to cultivate. Conversely, if I’m still rubbish at:

  • remembering people’s names,
  • at getting witty jokes and puns,
  • at going along to lots of the social things I get invited to because I have a lot of other commitments and I get tired,

I don’t need to beat myself up about that and feel like I’m failing to love others when I do these things. They’re the world’s constructions of ‘likeability’, not Christian standards by which we can assess how far we’re loving our neighbour.

It sounds so simple all typed out! But actually, in practice, it can be hard to catch yourself when you mix up social constructs of politeness and ‘likeable’ behaviour with real loving/unloving behaviour, and so a lot of these confusions can slip under the radar, and affect the way you evaluate yourself and others. I know I can struggle with this problem, and I’ve seen others struggle with it too – which at least consoles me I’m not alone! I think the struggle against it is a little facet in striving to ‘not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind‘ (Romans 12:2).

I have no idea if this long ramble will make sense, or be meaningful, to anyone else! But it’s been on my mind this evening, and so I thought I’d reflect on it and share it, in case it’s of interest or help to anyone else too!

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