My Problem was that I was Too Nice

The title of this post is identical to the first part of a title in an article by Jamil Zaki in the Health and Science Section of the 20 March 2018 issue of the Washington Post. The second part of the title is “Now I realize the downside of being polite.”

The author is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. He asked the question he poses to everyone who graduates from his lab: “What could I have done better?” The departing student replied, “You’re too nice.” When asked to elaborate he said, “you’re so nice to everyone here that we don’t really know what you think about anyone. Some people end up assuming the worst.”

The author concluded that he was addicted to niceness. He wrote, “Not everyone shares my addiction. In fact, our culture is in the middle of a politeness shortage. Imagine a reader from five years ago leafing through today’s Washington Post. She’d probably be shocked at the vulgarity of our national conversation. Social media is overrun with bullying. CNN warns parents they might want to clear the room of small children before the president’s remarks are broadcast. Norms are steadily shredded. The psychologist Steven Pinker claims that modern society is built on a foundation of ‘civilizing’: people’s adherence to common decency. If he’s right, our house is teetering.”

The author has been studying empathy for the past dozen years, the ability to share and understand each others feelings. Empathy comes in different flavors, including distress, an aversion to seeing others in pain. And concern, a desire to improve their well-being. He notes that the pieces of empathy often split apart. He says to imagine a friend about to launch an ill-advised business adventure or to marry someone you know to be unfaithful. If you tell him the bad news, he’ll feel hurt, but he’ll also have information to make wiser choices. Empathetic distress motivates us to avoid causing suffering at all costs, but it can also encourage comforting lies over difficult truths. This is polite, but not kind. If we truly care for people, we often must steer them into hard feelings.

The author writes, “If there is one place that politeness seems useful, it’s the gulf between Us and Them into which our country has fallen. Political discourse increasingly resembles a live-action YouTube comment section; to claw our way back toward stability, niceness seems like a crucial starting point. In the fall Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch preached the importance of politeness, joining a chorus of similar voices from across the political spectrum.”

The author concludes, “I now realized my politeness stemmed from a shallow empathy. I strove to guard others—and probably myself—from pain rather than to enrich us. My question for this year: Instead of doing no harm, how can I do the most good?

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: