It’s nice to be nice but much more important to be brave

05 Feb 2014

I want to be liked, of course I do. I want people to think well of me and say nice things about me. I find conflict difficult. It sends my anxiety levels up and makes me feel tense and defensive. However, one of the unexpected benefits of aging is that you slowly learn you can survive conflict and that, sadly, however nice you try to be, there will always be people who don't like you, think badly of you and speak nastily about you.

Indeed, some of my saddest friends are those who – for all sorts of reasons – decided that being nice was worth any sacrifice. I think they really believed that if they did what others wanted them to do, they would be rewarded with approval and acceptance. Their tragedy is not only have they not been so rewarded, but the very opposite has happened. Niceness and compliance has become so ingrained that they seem bland and boring, the sort of people you see out of duty rather than with any sense of excitement and anticipation. They have become so used to making sure that what they were about to say will upset no-one, they now have nothing to say at all.

When I was young, I was considered rather difficult. I have never been very good at being nice or compliant. Brought up to speak my mind, I have found it impossible to keep silent for very long – despite the very best of intentions and strict admonitions to myself that I will not (WILL NOT) get caught up in an argument. I cannot tell you the number of nights I lay awake beating myself up for getting heated in a discussion, for losing my temper, for not – essentially – being very nice. I don't do that anymore – beat myself up, I mean. I still get heated on occasions but, so what? A bit of agro (verbal only) makes the world go round and gets the blood pumping. I now enjoy the cut and thrust of a good discussion and no longer feel ashamed of my inability to be nice.

Australia – despite its reputation for frankness and blunt speech – has a problem with niceness, it seems to me. Many of us appear to be mortally afraid of giving offence. Not just in our private lives either. The problem of niceness and fear of upsetting others seems endemic, particularly among those who work or represent the supposedly 'nicer' end of society – NGOs, charities, education and health. The fear of speaking up, far from being nice, actually makes life much more difficult than it needs to be.

I have become very impatient with individuals and organisations that seek to do good but are so mortally afraid of giving offence, they end up doing nothing. I worked on creating a poster designed to draw attention to domestic violence a while ago. It went through many concepts as each one was knocked down as potentially offensive to this group or that group, not showing enough 'diversity', etc. etc. etc. until the final product featured no human being at all. None could be found that wouldn't offend somebody somewhere – a white woman was racist & sexist, a woman from any other ethnic group implied they were more likely to be victims, silhouettes were sexist & promoted negative body image or implied fatter women were more likely to be victims, I kid you not. Money was spent, incomprehensible posters were made and precisely nothing was achieved except that no-one was offended. (How can you be offended by something that says nothing?) I guess a box was ticked somewhere next to an item labelled 'create anti-domestic violence poster' and the reputations of the organization and its representatives were unscathed.

The same thing happened with an anti-brain injury poster designed to remind young women who ride horses to wear helmets. Research showed they hated what the helmets did to their hair but that vanity was leading them to take a terrible risk. We came up with a cheeky poster that featured an attractive (bare-headed) woman with flowing dark hair riding a horse at speed with the headline "Blonde" (there was copy that explained about helmets and brain injury). Yes, it was a nasty, sexist, racist, stereotypical play on dumb blonde jokes, if you want to see it that way. It was also cheeky, pithy, communicated fast, amusing and might attract attention. But, no, blondes might be offended, better they get brain damage.

To be frank, I think wanting to be nice is self-oriented. It is a fear about what others may think or say about you. Being prepared to be brave and take the risk of saying exactly what you think is other-oriented. You are less concerned about what they may think of you and more concerned about actually communicating something.

And it's not really very brave to risk a little criticism or be accused of being offensive by speaking up. You may even make someone think! (That's often what people are trying to avoid when they decide to take offence. They don't want their ideas challenged.)

For what its worth, here's my standard answer when someone huffily tells me they are offended by what I have said or written; 'if the worst thing that happens to you in this life is you are offended by something, then you are living a pretty good life.'

It's a polite way of saying suck it up princess (or prince, as the case may be, I'd hate to be accused of being sexist.)

Jane will be joining us for a Q&A at the Sydney Women's Agenda breakfast. It's going to be everything you'd want - hilarious, poignant and unmissable. Grab your tickets now.


Jane Caro

Jane Caro is a novelist, author, social commentator and devoted tweeter.

Twitter: @JaneCaro 

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