Now that I’m back working in academia, I am part of lots of conversations about how we can make it easier for students to succeed. The focus isn’t on diluting course work, or lowering expectations, but on simply removing some of the roadblocks students face when they enroll in school and take classes. We’re working on some pretty basic ideas, really, like being more welcoming to our students when they enter our classes, demonstrating patience when they are confused or upset, and connecting with them enough that we know what’s going on in their lives. In very simple terms, we are talking about being nice.
When I was younger, I remember that the idea of being nice was considered the same as being a pushover. We thought of being nice as having to ignore mistreatment and just smiling instead. That is not what I think of these days when I think of being nice. I see it differently now, and not just because of my job. To me, being nice is taking down our own defenses and engaging with other people in a human way. It’s really seeing and hearing another person and doing what you can to make an authentic connection. It doesn’t mean we have to subject ourselves to being treated poorly; in fact, it's just the opposite. If we have a real connection, neither of us will tolerate unacceptable behavior from the other.
When I see the pain we’re all in so often, I know the kind of salve that being nice can provide.
As I get older, I realize that the ability to be nice to other people is the greatest gift we possess. If I say hello to another person I’m passing—and I mean really look them in the eye and connect with them—it could be the moment that changes their day. They may have just received bad news, or their car wouldn’t start, or someone was impatient with them about something. If I am nice to them, it just gives them a minute to rest in the kindness of another human. And it feels pretty good to me, too.
Admittedly, it’s hard to be nice to people if they are unkind to us. If someone angry comes into my office, I try to stay in myself as much as I can and ask them to tell me what’s going on. I have also had to remind a lot of people over the years that it is easier for me to hear them and help them if they can take a minute to catch their breath and speak to me in a kind manner. It doesn’t always work, but yelling at a person who is yelling at me is pretty much a wash.
I have learned way more than I deserve about niceness from my partner. Jodi really might be the nicest person on earth. When we first met, because I am someone damaged and cynical, I equated her congeniality with a lack of substance. Boy, was I wrong. She is a person who has an uncanny ability to compartmentalize enough not to carry every hurt she has experienced with her. She really does meet other people as they are at that moment and welcomes them with love and humor and good will. She has amazing boundaries, so I know she’s not a pushover. It is beyond inspiring to me, and I have been so fortunate to have learned a tiny bit of this from her in the nearly 20 years we’ve been together.
Jodi comes to my mind when I am about to talk to someone who annoys me. Part of me wants to be snarky and dismissive just to keep myself separate. Then I think of Jodi and how she just lets people in. I also realize then that I have a million miles to go on my own being nice path. Still, when I see the pain we’re all in so often, I know the kind of salve that being nice can provide. If I connect with empathy—from my heart—being kind comes naturally. It's when I get hooked into all of my own thoughts and fears that I get into trouble. So I'm keeping it simple now--reaching out for a second to be kind. It can't possibly hurt.