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Niceness Is a Cover-up

by Confluence
Reading Time: 6 minutes

By: Iyabo Onipede

He asked me what I thought of someone, and I responded and said, “He is nice.” And my brother kind of erupted and said, “What does nice mean? Nice is such a neutral word. It does not mean good. It does not mean bad. It is not a way to describe someone. Tell me about the person’s character and don’t use the word ‘nice!’”I remember a conversation I had with my brother many years ago. He is an engineer and a great thinker. In my opinion, everything is an equation in his mind. Phew! I am totally right brained!

O, boy. I was so confused.

For years, that conversation stayed with me and every time I describe something or someone as nice, I pause. I try and use a word with more gravitas than “nice!”

Over the years, I have developed a different relationship with “nice.” Now, I warn you, you may not agree with me. But I invite you to explore how benign “nice” is.

I don’t like it. That word.

And, unfortunately, I have come to recognize that “nice” is part of the American landscape. In all my conversations about race and privilege in this country, I have come to recognize that for white Americans, “nice” is a cultural norm. Most white Americans defer to niceness as a core “value.” Yet, I believe that many confuse niceness with gentility and sophistication. Educated, well-bred, people have learned to develop a veneer of niceness. In many circles, it is considered crass to be direct and blunt.

Segway: This is why a certain group of Americans love #45 whose name shall not be mentioned in any of my writings. Nope. Not at all. They love his crassness, his directness and that is what they call “honesty.” But we know that not all directness and crassness is truthful and liberating.

Digression: Why won’t I mention his name? A naming gives life and authenticity. I refuse to give life to what is not inclusive and life-affirming. I am powerful, and I know it and I make wise choices with my language and attention.

Back to the Newsletter: Niceness drives me crazy. Often it is worn as a shield, an armor to protect one’s privilege and belief system as the most superior in the world. Often, those that hold “nice” up as a virtue, do so with a smugness that they know best. Privilege, anyone?

Confession: I tend to be a little bit (Ok. Fine. A lot) rude when I become aware of “fake nice.” Don’t like it.

Unfortunately, I see this with a lot of my evangelical Christians. They think being nice is the “Christian” way to be.

“Most Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.” – Henri Nouwen 

Ahhhhh!!!!!!!! Niceness replaces love and is a power move! No wonder I have an issue with it.

Niceness is a tool often used to abuse power. It is a way of hiding your true intentions and not sharing because you do not feel equity between you and the person you are actually trying to manipulate with niceness. It is the lock that hides secrets behind an impenetrable fortress.

“Nice” now means to me the following:

  • Don’t tell the truth. It is more important to be palatable.
  • Pleasantness over directness.
  • Don’t ruffle the feathers. Don’t stir the waters.
  • Questioning means trouble. Therefore, don’t do it.
  • Maintaining the status quo is preserving life. Don’t change it.
  • Stifle growth.
  • Niceness works for me. Why not you? i.e. What is wrong with you?

In case you have not noticed, I am a change agent. I believe in change as a necessary step to growth.

  • Change and niceness do not go hand in hand.
  • Love and niceness do not go hand in hand.
  • Shared power and niceness do not go hand in hand.

Niceness is a pleasant way of numbing out. It is a way of avoiding hard conversations and it results in not honoring the validity of your emotions.

When change comes, hard emotions come up.

If we do not know how to deal with our hard emotions and if we embrace niceness as a primary value of ours, then we do not embrace truth.

Niceness is a cover-up, folks.

Now, dispensing with niceness does not mean you cannot be polite or pleasant. Yes, you can.

But is your niceness costing you the joy of knowing yourself and therefore showing up fully in the world?

You see, for you to discover your true feelings about something, you have to remove all the “shoulds” that show up. Niceness is a “should” – someone, somewhere taught you that niceness has virtue.

Niceness, and other “should,” are barriers to a rich interior landscape.

You see, if you sense that your internal world is bumping up against niceness, lay down niceness and explore what is going on inside you. Your emotions are begging to be released. Be suspicious of what is going on with your power internally.

There is such a wide range of emotions in our lives. Most flow the following way from most positive to most negative. One popular list on the Interwebs is as follows:

  • Joy/empowerment/love
  • Passion
  • Enthusiasm
  • Positive expectation/belief
  • Optimism
  • Hopefulness
  • Contentment
  • Boredom
  • Pessimism
  • Overwhelm
  • Disappointment
  • Doubt/Worry
  • Blame
  • Discouragement
  • Anger
  • Revenge
  • Hatred/Rage
  • Jealousy
  • Insecurity/guilt/unworthiness
  • Fear/grief/depression/powerlessness/victim

Where do you see “nice” on this list? Nice is NOT contentment or boredom. My hope is that this list helps you see the richness of emotions and how “nice” just does not fit in.

It is important to be civil and to be polite. I do not denigrate that in any way.

Pleasantness is an asset. I am using “nice” as a way to describe that plastic feel-good fake feeling that has a veneer to it because we just do not know what to say or we do not want to engage in any form of conflict, so we defer to being fake with “nice.”

“Nice” is a cover-up for real feelings like those listed above.

The emotional intelligence component of self-awareness serves you beautifully as you explore the rich inner landscape called your emotional life.

Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. – Travis Bradberry

What I have discovered in my coaching is that the best leaders are aware of all of their emotions and they easily move from one to another. In a one-hour coaching session, they can experience grief, sadness, joy and even love. They do not get stuck in a single emotion. They do not deny any of their emotions and in spite of what they are experiencing emotionally, they can speak truthfully with kindness and compassion.

It is an art to be able to do that. It is a beautiful thing too. And you must be intentional about it.

If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it. – Alice Walker

How do you fight for a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions?

  • You honor and respect that you have a huge range of emotions by accepting them.
  • You comprehend the language of emotions. They are there for a reason. When you feel deep fear and grief that children were killed senselessly, you recognize that it may be your soul asking you to do something about it.
  • You become empowered by noticing your emotions, reading them and moving up the scale as you do not wallow in the emotion until it becomes toxic.
  • You receive support in your relationships as you navigate the emotional world.
  • You can determine your emotional set point. Daily you can choose how you want to show up in the world emotionally and make it a point to reset to that point when the language of other emotions draws you away. For me, I tend to live within optimism and hopefulness and when I felt fear and grief over the children in Florida, this week, I processed it, and was able to eventually move back to hope. I am optimistic that gun laws will change in this country.

My hope for you, precious reader, is that this week, you will challenge yourself to laydown niceness and allow yourself to FEEL all of your rich, wonderful emotions, good and bad. This is how you embrace genuine positivity.

We don’t have the choice to control our emotions, but we do have the power to educate our emotions. And we do that through literature, and through art and music to give ourselves a repertoire of emotional experiences. – David Brooks.

My second hope is that you eliminate niceness from your business or leadership role and let your work life be an expression of the creativity that lies in your deepest and richest emotions.

Rational thoughts never drive people’s creativity the way emotions do. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

My final hope is that your emotions will help you as you discover you are powerful to make the changes in the world, in the larger culture, that you want to see.

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come. – Henri Nouwen


Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine-tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).

Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).

Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com

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