Nice is a Four-Letter Word:

First in an Occasional Series About Men and Tendentious English
(c) 2014, Davd

Do not ask me to be nice. It is actually a selfish, mean-spirited demand. If someone asks you to be nice, be sceptical instead.

If some of the men reading this blog have had an intuitive shudder when ordered to be nice, maybe this reflection will help them put words to that shudder; and if some women didn’t realize just what a Four-Letter-word, Nice is; i hope this helps them figure out why. Let’s begin with the fact that nice is not a virtue.

I hope you will not need to ask me to be charitable, fair, faithful, friendly, prudent, temperate, or truthful1. Those are virtues in the classic sense—good qualities for men to have and to live. (Virtue begins with vir, which is Latin for—man. A virtue is a quality seemly to a man.) Virtues are lived the same way “all the time”—whoever it is you’re dealing with, they lead to the same basic conduct.

Nice, doesn’t: It’s subjective. Being nice means doing and saying whatever pleases the person you’re being nice to. It means organizing your conduct around—making your words and deeds the servant of—that person’s feelings. If Aunt Maude likes green neckties, and you’re being Nice to Aunt Maude, you’ll wear a green necktie when you socialize with her. If Mommy likes brown neckties, and you’re being Nice to Mommy, you’ll wear a brown necktie when you socialize with her. If Big-City Cousin Anne likes pink-and-purple neckties—well, for me anyway, that would be too much.

Being Nice can get complicated and difficult! If you go to a family dinner where both Aunt Maude and Mommy will be present, it might be possible to find a green-and-brown necktie that isn’t too ugly—but what clothes to wear with it? (In fact, i haven’t worn any neckties in more than two years—as you might have guessed from my overall attitude toward “Nice”—and especially if you’ve read about my pre-retirement work history.) This isn’t primarily a “jobs”, blog, but conventional jobs do seem to demand more Niceness than self-employment does: What if the boss likes pink-and-purple neckties?

The influence of Feminism seems to have included heavy pressure on men, to be Nice. In his book Emotional Intelligence [Bantam, 1997, p. 130], Daniel Goleman recalls an extreme example, “As i was entering a restaurant … a young man stalked out the door, his face set in an expression both stony and sullen. Close on his heels a young woman came running, her fists desperately pummeling on his back while she yelled, “Goddamn you! Come back here and be nice to me!” (No hint from Goleman, nor from what i read on men’s websites in 2011-12, that the woman would be punished—but if the sexes were reversed …? Goleman goes on to blather about women being more emotionally effective; but from what he reports actually observing, i’d say the man’s behaviour was closer to saintly and the woman’s was closer to mentally ill.)

It does seem that women demand Nice much more often than we men—we’re more likely to ask each other to be fair, a good sport, … qualities which are matters of group rather than personal assessment.

There is no decent cause nor reason why a man (or anyone of either sex) should let himself be bullied into “being nice”. Nor would one expect any sane man to try what that young woman was doing—especially not the police. Back in the third quarter of the 20th Century, many of us who grew up then might have considered it normal for a woman and perhaps a homosexual man to use the word “nice” in a demand—but not a heterosexual man—and even then, it would have been outrageous for a man, however effeminate, to use violence, however ineffective, to back up a demand to be Nice.

“Nice”, then, seems to function as a code-word for catering to the feelings of a woman—whether or not any eros be involved. It shifts the burden of a woman’s demand that she feel good, onto the man or child, perhaps sometimes another woman, who she is demanding “Be Nice.” As a somewhat awkward definition, “being Nice” means making the satisfaction level of who demands it, the most important influence on your conduct.”2

Methinks that’s too much to ask. Ask me for a favour, and i might do it for you; demand i be nice, and in a backhanded roundabout way, you’re trying to make it my social duty, to please you.

No fair!—You wouldn’t want anybody else to demand you make it your social duty, to please her—so in fairness, don’t ask what you wouldn’t want to grant.


1. The order is alphabetic. The sources of the list are the Four Cardinal Virtues, the Three Christian Virtues, and the twelve Boy Scout vitrues—with emphasis on fidelity and
truthfulness. The lists overlap: For instance, fidelity overlaps with loyalty and trustworthiness on the Boy Scout list and is to some extent a derivative of Faith on the Christian list. Fortitude [A classic and Boy Scout virtue] isn’t listed because in these times men aren’t as welcome to be brave as our grandfathers were, and because bravery has been confounded with granting women undue privilege [as
when the Titanic went down].

2. “Being nasty” could conversely be defined as making lowering the satisfaction level of the demander, the most important influence on your conduct. This is worth some attention: If you do something because you enjoy it or it has practical value for you—say, getting your pant knees dirty working in the garden—and that lowers the satisfaction level of Aunt Maude when you meet her for lunch, dirtying your pant knees was not being nasty—it was being less than fussy about your pants, while gardening.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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