As we explained in “My War Against Nice I,” trying to be nice means determining how we act by how it will make others feel. This syndrome was (first?) described almost 900 years ago by the great Rabbeinu Bechaya in his classic work “Chovos HaLevavos.” He writes that being a people pleaser is actually worse than being an idol worshipper. The idol worshipper bows down to only one false god while the people pleaser bows down to dozens! That said, it is worth a few minutes of our time to consider how to avoid being trapped by this pernicious behavior.
As we said before, a person who is locked into being nice will often be aware of negative emotions connected with this. These emotions may range from vague discomfort to outright frustration. When faced with objective rules that we must keep, we usually don’t experience such frustration or emotional conflict. Although some people experience vexation with any kind of rule, many people who do not mind rules will nonetheless feel ill at ease when trying to be nice. The reason for this is that they understand, on the one hand, that rules must be kept. However, they realize intuitively that the rules self-imposed by trying to be nice are unfair, self-defeating or outright unattainable.
How can we tell if we are motivated by objective principles or by an emotional drive to be viewed as nice? One way is by paying careful attention to the language patterns we use when defining what comprises correct behavior. For example, when a mother says to a child, “don’t do that, it’s not nice,” she is saying that this is behavior that some person (perhaps herself) will not approve of — whether that approval is justified or not. She is, unfortunately, teaching her child to be nice. She is not saying that that the offending behavior is prohibited or objectively proscribed. If that is what she meant, her words would have a source in some binding legislative rule. This could be in the form of halachah — “We are not allowed to say that, it is Lashon Ha’ra; Hashem prohibits us from speaking that way” or, le’havdil, any other source of authority — “You may not go into that room; the sign says ‘Staff Only’.” It is irrelevant what anyone thinks — it is the behavior that is objectively prohibited. In fact, sometimes it may not be so “nice” to do the right thing. For example, if a friend is complaining slanderously and we don’t commiserate by joining in her Lashon Ha’ra, it’s actually not at all nice — but it is indeed the correct behavior.
Now let’s move to relationships. Let’s say that a client tells me that she needs more time with her husband. I might ask, “Why don’t you ask him to spend some time with you?” to which she quickly counters, “that’s not nice.” What does she mean to say? She means to say, “I am afraid that my husband may disapprove of my request.” Why does this make her nervous? Because she knows that if she doesn’t speak to him there is no way he can know what she is thinking (notwithstanding the interesting, colorful and dysfunctional things both men and women do to communicate with spouses without talking, like stonewalling, leaving a pair of smelly sneakers on your pillow, or locking you out of the house when you come home “too” late). She is stuck now in a contradiction: on the one hand she can speak to him which she is afraid will give him an excuse to act angry, or she can keep quiet and suffer. That’s not so nice, right? What is the solution? Well there are many, but the core realization which is necessary is that nobody can control the emotions of the people around them. You can treat them well and in a way they should enjoy, but you cannot stop them from getting angry or make them happy. That is their own responsibility. Tell yourself, “I will do what I must do, and because of that I will be happy with myself, even if you think that that is not nice.” Of course, this is not a license to be nasty; the Torah still prohibits you from speaking in a cruel or unkind fashion. But after choosing benevolent words carefully and using a fully strategized program of communication (perhaps with the help of a coach), you will probably get the results you want – even if you thought that bringing up “that subject” was not nice. If the person you are speaking to is still bothered by the facts of the kindly, politely stated message, that may just be his cue that he should begin to pull his own weight in the relationship.