Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Importance of Being Nice

Here’s a piece of mine that the delightful and highly recommendable Mien Magazine have just accepted for inclusion.

The Importance of Being Nice

One of the great brands of Britain, up there with Marmite, Foyles and Bristol Motors, has as its logo a depiction of a dead lion with a cloud of bees rising above it and a legend beneath stating that ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ You will recognise the quote as being from chapter 14 of the Book of Judges and the brand as Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. But what’s the relevance of this to the subject of being nice?

Nice seems to have become unfashionable of late. While the very word encompasses politeness, kindness, thoughtfulness and decency, it also hints at a gentle affability, an amiable pleasantness and there’s little enough of that around. We live in a world where grasping insecurity and aspirational greed has all but won the day, where self is the overriding concern and where rights take precedence over responsibilities. All this works as acid corrosion on the unwritten contract of reciprocal humaneness that is the essence of nice.

Nice has had to put up with some fierce criticism over the years. There’s a Dutch proverb which states that ‘too nice is neighbour’s fool’, even Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations once commented that ‘It’s easy to be nice, even to an enemy – from lack of character.’ And here’s where the golden syrup comes into it because I believe that the Dutch and Dag were wrong, that niceness is actually grossly misunderstood and as result completely undervalued.

Niceness takes strength, moral fibre and confidence in one’s self to exhibit and enact. It is not an act of cowering weakness to be nice but the action of the evolved and compassionate. Bullies are nasty because they are weak, threatened and insecure. Rudeness is generally the default stance of the arrogant and thoughtless who care not one jot about their fellow man. Even the famed and over used Jimmy Durante quote “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on the way down” completely misses the spirit of nice which is as close to altruism as is possible, doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for any reward or recognition. Certainly not as any hedge against future descent. You see you can’t really fake nice. Nice is as nice does and much like honesty, although we are disposed to be tolerant to its simulacra when we see or hear them, we certainly recognise its true presence on some basic, hardwired emotional level when it manifests itself.

Nice is often not easy. It has a morality of its own which is supererogatory. It’s the quiet, persistent bell in your head that when heard demands that you act, often not only because it is the right thing to do – we’ve all walked away from such situations in our lives – but because to not act would play on our consciences. Nice is therefore demanding, a self imposed personal challenge that when met and met well can enhance our feeling of self-worth, that warm glow of having made the world a better place in some small way. It’s not the reason for being nice, of course, that wouldn’t be nice, but it is a secondary benefit, a modest, welcome reward.

And that gets to the heart of the importance of nice. No one should be above morality and certainly not the morality of nice. Bullies should feel weak and insecure until they learn to be nice. The arrogant should have their rudeness reflected back at them until they understand the enduring power of nice. Nice is the domain of the highly evolved; perhaps the highest expression of the art of community living and of course with niceness comes an understanding and tolerance of the weakness of others, because to be otherwise wouldn’t be nice.

And in case none of the above convinces you, perhaps this will; it surely can’t be an accident that the regional capital of Provence is a city in the south of France so good they named it Nice and that my mother brought me up to understand that while it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice.

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