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Cultivating a culture of niceness


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I am increasingly concerned about two trends in our culture that may or may not be related. This blog is about the first trend — a trend of insisting that people be ‘nice’.  My next blog will address the second trend — incivility — and a possible relationship between the two.

I, personally, experience this demand for niceness mainly in two settings. The first setting is in the presence of women of a certain age, primarily boomers and gen X’ers (although, I have encountered it — less often — with men, and with women of other ages). In certain circles, raising one’s voice;  or displaying anger, frustration or impatience;  is considered not nice. It is labeled rude, and even abusive. I have actually had people insist that someone who raised their voice and got excited was being ‘verbally abusive’. As someone who grew up with verbal as well as physical abuse, I often feel like this claim trivializes my experience of being abused.

I recognize that someone who has been verbally abused may be justifiably sensitive to raised voices or expressions of anger. I’ve been there. I get it. And, like many sorts of ‘victims’ I found myself with a choice. I could spend my life being a victim and expecting people to modify their behavior so as not to ‘hurt’ me. Or I could take responsibility for my own healing. I decided that I wanted to be able to participate actively in a culture of free exchange of ideas by passionate people. So I learned to overcome that fear reaction. I do not feel that I am entitled to demand that people speak in nicely modulated tones and tempos in order to avoid re-victimizing me.

I think that insisting that everyone must always be nice is a form of abuse. Anger can be a healthy response to injustice and oppression on the social level and to being wronged on a personal level. When we try to ‘stuff’ our anger, it comes out in unhealthy ways — physical health problems, depression, even suicide. There need to be culturally acceptable ways to express anger in general, and to express anger with another person. When a relationship has been broken, and anger is a healthy response, talking through the anger, often with the person with whom we’re angry, can be an essential part of healing the relationship. That conversation won’t always be nice.

The second setting in which niceness seems to be a required quality is the church. The thinking seems to be that because we want everyone to feel safe in churches, strong emotions are unacceptable. I have been astonished that people who have never met me, read my Facebook posts and comment that I have no business being a pastor, and they could not imagine that anyone would be part of my church, because I am not nice.

News flash — Jesus was often NOT NICE! In Matthew 16:23 Jesus says to Peter, one of his closest friends, “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.” In Matthew 17:17 Jesus says “You faithless and perverse generation… how much longer must I put up with you?”  (These passages have parallels in Mark and Luke.) I assure you Jesus did not make these comments in a nice tone. And we have all heard the story (in all four Gospels) of Jesus’ temper tantrum in the temple where he throws over the tables of the money changers and cracks a whip to drive out their animals (if not the money changers themselves). The synagogue leaders were definitely not pleased. (John 2:1+)

I would like to suggest that this demand for niceness is not only not Christian, it is NOT healthy. There are times when getting angry is called for. There are even times when yelling is an appropriate expression of frustration or anger. If we give in to the demand for a Culture of Niceness, we silence vehement voices speaking out against the numerous forms of injustice.

We silence the voices of the elderly at a time when many would take away entitlements — funds that they’ve paid into their entire lives. We silence the voices of dissent — those who passionately disagree with the way our country is being run. We silence angry minorities who are tired of being second class citizens. In my opinion, angry words and raised voices were an appropriate response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. While I applaud the call for non-violence after the verdict, I also applaud the articulate voices expressing anger and frustration.

We do not need niceness. We need honesty, and carefully articulated discussions, perhaps even arguments, about fundamentally important issues and values. We can be civil without giving up our anger. We can be civil without demanding nice.

Conklin and three other panelists will be disucssing this tomorrow (Saturday) at our next Coffee Talk. Please join us at 10 a.m. at Indaba Coffee!

Deb Conklin
Deb Conklin
Rev. Deb Conklin’s wheels are always turning. How can the church make the world a better place? How can it make Spokane better? Her passions are many, including social justice in the mainline tradition, emergence and the post-modern and missional church.

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Mark Hilditch
Mark Hilditch
10 years ago

“We can be civil without giving up our anger. We can be civil without demanding nice.” Hmmm…. can we? Really? For many people I’ve met in my life civility and niceness are synonymous. With them there are no gradations of expression. They don’t know how to (or don’t want to) express anger and frustration without quickly becoming uncivil. Is this a result of societal failure, unhealthy family life, mental illness, other factors, or a combination of the above? For some, a full venting of their emotions leads directly to the creation of more problems than it solves. It makes me wonder if, short of therapy, some folks might still be better off “stuffing it?” I have spent a good deal of my adult life speaking out against injustice, so please don’t read this hesitation as having anything to do with advocating a “culture of niceness,” but, I do wonder about seeming ease with which The Rev. Conklin draws her conclusions.

10 years ago

There’s a difference between feeling justified anger and a justified expression of anger. A need and a place for in-the-streets “angry mob activism” will exist as long as great societal injustices persist. However, toward the lasting betterment of a greater society, the institutions built upon the results of activism must be governed by reason.

Quite simply, there is intentional anger and there is unintentional anger. The expression of intentional anger is a conscious choice that must be governed by the direction of a conscious will. Unintentional anger is a subconscious expression of self-defense which easily and often leads to destructive violence. I believe the more precise question is, perhaps, when and where might the expression of INTENTIONAL anger be justified? If a forum (such as the British Parliament) is DESIGNED to include such expression as a constructive element of debate, then it’s most fitting. Opening the door to social anger in general, however, negates fundamental disciplines most traditions of faith and values are founded upon. If we are going to defend the generalized use of anger by invoking the words of Jesus, might we at least acknowledge His example sets a VERY high bar?

The Rev. Conklin appears to be making a statement regarding expressions of genuine belief versus expressions of superficial pleasantry. “Anti-nice?” (Good luck with that.)

Jan Shannon
Jan Shannon
10 years ago

Deb, how would you deal with Col. 3:8?

Eric Blauer
Eric Blauer
10 years ago

I think Ephesians 4:26 ” Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath”, clarifies that there are different levels of anger. At some point it moves into a fire that can destroy instead of empower, one of the reasons they bibles talks a lot about the dangers of anger. This could probably be said about everything that has a potential for good.

As far as being nice, I think most people would concurs that people who are not nice end up lonely people. Nobody wants a jerk around. Most expressions of anger are just difficult people with big egos, issues and mouths. It’s rare to find healthy people behind anger. Most of my experiences seem to confirm that those who protest the loudest are often the ones with the deepest issues.

That said, I agree with you Deb and think that the examples you lay out reflect people’s insecurity more than anything else. Many people live dispassionate lives and the temperatures of their loves & lives are lukewarm, stale, unmoved.

Jesus said to live lives that are outside the “comfort zone” temperate zone. Hot or Cold…the rest of it makes Him vomit. Strong words coming from the Prince of Peace.

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