A few months ago, my friend from the States visited me in Dublin. We spent quite a bit of time driving around the country. During these road trips, we began talking about confidence, assertiveness, being nice, nice guys and girls and bad guys and girls. As we talked, the conversation turned to me and her thoughts on me as a person. She pointed out something that I had heard from a few friends before. My problem is that I’m too ‘nice’. I’m too much of a ‘good guy’. I treat people ‘too well’. I’m ‘too generous’. She is not my only friend who has given me those home truths.
In reality, I’m not actually that nice. I’m sure I have plenty of friends and even family members who wouldn’t describe me as ‘nice’. I’m sure that is a side of me that is evident in certain situations but not so much in others. The feedback however, was indicative that it was evident in situations where it is not a good thing. I considered times where I have been walked over by others. I thought about how I felt and why I let others do so. I reflected on time after time that I proved the old adage ‘nice guys come last’ as true. But then I recognised that, in fact, it wasn’t because I was nice that I let myself down. It was something else entirely.
Some people are, no doubt, too nice in general. Others are the opposite. They go through life taking from others and demanding whatever they want. Eric Barker, in his book, Barking up the Wrong Tree, explains that nice guys come last in plenty of situations. However, he also points out that nice guys also come first! This interesting paradox is explained by understanding that though you can be taken advantage of by some, you can also give yourself an advantage by building far better relationships by being nice. The reality is that it is only through understanding you are not in fact being as nice as you think and changing your perspective on what nice means, that you can start benefiting from being ‘nice’ without the downsides.
What is being nice? Nice is defined as ‘pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory’. There are two key problems with being ‘nice’. One is that by being pleasant, there can be an indication that the person is, in fact, boring. The other is that by being agreeable, there can be a tendency to let other people do whatever they want to do regardless of how it might impact the person themselves.
The idea that ‘nice guys and nice girls come last’ is often connected with these two. It is because they let others pressure them into saying yes that they don’t often get what they want. Furthermore, by pleasing everyone they become boring. Instead of showing their own unique personality to the world, they blend in and pleasantly fit with whatever everyone else thinks so they fail to make an impact. As a result of this, in business, they usually aren’t taken seriously by others and they fail to be effective at influence.
For me, in my past, as much as I’m not entirely sure I deserve the term ‘nice’, I certainly have, on occasion, been too generous. I learned this from friends of mine. Some of my closest friends are the kind of people who always want to get a round of drinks and always want to pay for dinner. I learned to do this too. In many ways, the reason this became a problem is the same reason that being nice is a problem. It was not because I started doing it. It was because I started doing it all the time.
You see, when you’re with close friends, buying them something is nice. Being bought something by them is nice. As long as both parties make an effort and give to each other, this forms close bonds. The problem comes when you feel the need to do it for everyone you meet. I found myself with strangers I barely knew taking care of the cost of a meal or a drink and it often wasn’t reciprocated. Instead, I found myself out of pocket time and time again and they somehow justified that it was okay. Maybe they thought I was rich and therefore it didn’t matter as much to me. Maybe they just saw me as a free lunch. Regardless, it was my fault for trying to buy their friendship. In many ways, the very act has often positioned me in a far worse way. For example, when I meet a girl and strike up a friendship, me paying all the time can either a) make her feel uncomfortable or b) create the idea that I ‘like’ her and therefore it is some attempt by me to ‘woo’ her. Even if this is far from the truth, I cause problems by doing this.
Just like generosity, niceness is something that can be abused or create the wrong impression. When I am too pleasant I become boring. When I am too agreeable I create the impression that I am weak. This weakness is certainly not attractive. Therefore, niceness causes me to create problems with people who I meet.
But there is another side. Generosity can lead to reciprocation. It can position you in a really special way. It can lead others to like you a lot. It can help you form deep bonds with people. Eric Barker references Adam Grant’s work on ‘Givers’ and ‘Takers’ and explains that those who are the most generous tend to give the most. When your attitude is that you want to help others, give to others and support others this can make you extremely well liked and appreciated.
Being nice, also, has its huge advantages. When you’re nice you make people feel good. They like being around you. You make them feel like they are safe with you. They are more likely to want to spend time with you. They are more likely to form a friendship with you.
The trick to it all is when, where and how you are ‘nice’. It is important to consider how you want other people to feel about you. You want to be interesting and fun for example, so they need to get this impression from you. You want to be unique and stand out, so they need to see you doing so. You want to be respected by them and you must earn it.
This all comes down to how you redefine ‘niceness’ to yourself. Niceness doesn’t have to mean giving into others all the time. Sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone is say no or tell the truth. Sometimes the nicest things you can do is disagree with them and help them to see that they may be wrong. Sometimes the nicest thing you can do is express what you really feel. You see, the truth of who you are, when revealed is one of the nicest and most generous things you can do for another person.
My friend in the car that day was pointing out to me that I was too nice. In reality, though, you could argue that I wasn’t nice enough. Instead, I was placating and giving out of a need to have them like me or to avoid conflict instead of trusting myself and letting them see the real me. The truth is, the flawed you is so much better than your attempted projection of a perfect version of yourself. Letting others see that is the best gift you can give.