, , , , , , , , , ,

When asked what makes Canadians different from Americans, many Canadians will respond that Canadians are nicer. I think that this characterization is (as generalizations go) entirely accurate. I’m just not so sure whether it’s a good thing.

Niceness, in my books, is not necessarily a virtue like kindness or gentleness, though it’s also not necessarily a flaw like timidity. Like extraversion, it is a personality trait with its benefits and flaws; the latter tend to receive less attention. I’m not just referring to the view that “nice guys finish last”; one might argue that that’s part of the point of niceness, to be self-sacrificing or altruistic so that others may do better. But even if one would argue that that’s a good thing, there are ways that niceness can hurt others as well as the nice themselves.

Consider the distinction between niceness and gentleness – or more concretely, between the nice guy and the gentleman. While in other respects I was unimpressed with Harvey Mansfield’s talk on manliness, I thought he gave an excellent reply there to a question about the ideal of the gentleman: a gentleman is a proper masculine ideal in that he is gentle because he chooses to be, not because he has to be. The nice guy, on the other hand, is nice by temperament, in a way that makes it difficult for him to avoid.

More generally, to pin these concepts down a bit more, it seems to me that to be nice is to avoid offence to others when possible, whereas to be gentle is to avoid harm. But surely sometimes offence is good – it helps us do good and avoid harm. Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal used offence to bring about valuable political change, as (in a different way) did Norman Lear’s All In The Family years later. So too, Ch’an masters are expected to insult and offend their students as a way of bringing about personal change for the better, in a way that a nice person couldn’t do. Dr. Phil‘s approach to therapy seems to be based on the same principle – it’s by being “mean,” the opposite of nice, that he makes people realize they’re screwing their lives up. Only be giving offence can he “tell it like it is.”

Niceness at its best becomes gentleness. André Comte-Sponville refers to la douceur, which could mean gentleness or niceness, as that which is lacking in a train full of soldiers – a group of people who, in other circumstances at least, could surely use a measure of niceness. Where Canadians would do well with a lower dose of niceness, Texans could use more of it.

It’s telling, though, that Comte-Sponville’s douceur literally means “softness”; Śāntideva uses saukum?rya, a Sanskrit word with a similar meaning, to describe the vice present in someone with no patient endurance, no tolerance for pain. The English “nice” doesn’t have quite that negative sense, but it does, I think, involve at least a little bit of fear. The nice guy doesn’t want to give offence, because he wants to avoid confrontation – even when confrontation would be a good thing. Niceness then too easily turns into passive aggression – because one isn’t ready for offence and open confrontation, one causes harm without admitting it.

As the references to nice guys and gentlemen might suggest, gender matters here too. Women are traditionally expected to be douce, to avoid confrontation, in ways that lead to meekness and submissiveness. (The nice guy, unlike the gentleman, is often thought of as effeminate.) My commenter Ayse sensibly took issue before with my previous reversal of Mansfield’s traditional gender roles, where I suggested that women need more patient endurance and men need emotional expression. Here, though, I see another reversal of traditional gender roles that seems in keeping with the spirit of her comment: women typically need to be less nice.