House of Cards. Game of Thrones. Real Housewives. Filthy Rich. Trump. We just love power, don’t we? Whether in the real world or the made-up one. You rarely see women being nice to each other on television.
We prefer people who are ruthless, austere, uncompromising, tough as nails. Hard-edged like House of Cards’ Claire Underwood’s clothes, which were tailored so she would look like a knife, to match her cut-throat comments (“I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that’s what it takes”).
Her power wardrobe, like a private jet or monogrammed luggage, is designed to generate palpable envy. And when our number one aim is to be feared rather than loved, it doesn’t matter if you’re a prize bitch. In fact, it’s a bonus.
Our cultural palate has been trained to appreciate the outré, edgy, mean and hard-ass, so anything less than that seems rather ho-hum. In this topsy-turvy world where it is good to be bad and bad to be good, the worst sin you can possibly commit is to simply be a bore.
The choice is always presented starkly as being between naughty or (snore) nice, even though we all know life is always more bonkers and jumbled-up and full of grey areas than that. Still, if that’s the way you frame it, this or that, guess which one seems most exciting?
Yep, nice guys finish last. So, nice has become a dirty word. Far from being something you might admire, it is praising with faint damns, a personality impediment, maybe even a disability. So most of the things we try to do to improve ourselves are to make ourselves happier, smarter, richer, thinner or tidier.
No one would admit to trying to be more amenable. Mongrel classes would sell out twice as fast.
On Pinterest pages, the word ‘kind’ gets a bit more bandwidth, complete with twee calligraphy and glow sticks. But ‘kindness’ is really only applauded if you’re also rich, successful and philanthropic, otherwise kindness shows you’re just a muggins and need to grow a pair.
There is an assumption that you have to be a bit dim-witted if you choose to be nice.
This is wrong. I’m with Kingsley Amis: “There was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.”
Admittedly, niceness doesn’t have the sex appeal of money or fame, but in real life it is a very valuable quality – it’s what makes the world go round – and it has been sadly forgotten. Niceness deserves to be rediscovered as one of the highest of all human achievements.
Philosopher Alain de Botton argues niceness is actually compatible with strength and is no indicator of naïvety, although that is not how it is generally seen. The answer, I think, is that being nice does not mean fawning or doing things for approval.
Niceness encompasses being forgiving and natural and knowing how to reassure: seeking connection rather than disruption.
Niceness is about being warm. Being nice demands confidence, so you can be nice and be strong at the same time. But maybe we need to stop seeing things in such polarised black and white terms. Life is not a choice between two doors: cool and cruel or nice and a numpty.
The problem is the widespread accepted-without-thinking notion that we must sacrifice our humanity in order to be great or to achieve anything.
There’s this kind of psychological tyranny in our culture, a sense that we must always be proving we’re special, unique, exceptional all the time. All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary.
This flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe ‘exceptional’ is the new normal. And since all of us are rarely exceptional, we all feel a bit insecure. Maybe we think we need to be bastards just to prove we aren’t ordinary. It’s a mistake.
And strangely, this belief may not even be true. Quiet days, domestic routine and regular bedtimes may be more conducive to creative highs than life on the edge or being a power-crazed tyrant.
De Botton argues that niceness and cooperation are actually necessary for achievement; capitalism may reward competition between firms but it relies on collaboration within them.
“All of the qualities we have been taught to think of as opposed to niceness are in fact highly compatible with and at points highly dependent upon it.”
There is another mistake we make when we don’t realise that cold characters might be exciting on TV shows but warm people are those we appreciate in real life.
As de Botton suggests, the warm person, when we have an evening planned with them, might suggest making toasted cheese sandwiches at their place rather than going out, might chat to us through the bathroom door, put on songs they loved dancing to when they were 14, plump up a cushion and slot it behind our back. That all sounds far from boring to me. It just sounds lovely.
There’s another negative association which bedevils niceness – that the nice can’t be sexually desirable because the qualities that make us sexy entail being domineering and confident, which is seen as at odds with the tenderness and cosiness of the nice. Not true. Nice people are funny, and not in a mean-spirited way, and that is sexiest of all.
Maybe things are changing. We’re starting to appreciate contentment and comfort in their own right; look at the craze for hygge – the Danish word for a special kind of cosiness.
In reality being cold might make a great TV character, but if you’re not living in the White House, surround yourself with nice people instead. It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.
And even Claire Underwood sometimes wears a nice soft woollen dressing gown.
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