There was an interesting side discussion the other day on Chump Lady about the difference between niceness and kindness. Many people noted that their cheaters appeared to much of the world as “nice people,” but in point of fact, lacked kindness. (Sure, it’s an understatement to say that cheating is unkind.)
Now, I don’t want to diss niceness, after all I am from the Midwest and it’s our default setting, but a lot of being nice is simply impression management. See? I come in peace! You can trust me, I’m nice! Nice works if you’re in sales. That’s why (at least here in the U.S., any way) salespeople are always encouraged to compliment you or end each transaction with “Have a nice day!”
I enjoy the social lubrication of nice. I want a nice person to bag my groceries. But at the end of the day, I just want my groceries bagged, the attitude with which you do it is optional. If I just got nice and no bagged groceries, that would suck.
“That’s a beautiful sweater you’re wearing!”
“Um, thanks. Could you please bag my groceries?”
“Lovely weather we’re having!”
“Uh, sir? There’s a line forming. Is this one of those bag-it-yourself places? Did I choose the self-check line?”
“Have a nice day!”
This is the cognitive dissonance of cheater nice. It’s nice without the bagged groceries. It’s pleasantry without substance. It’s all cherry and no sundae. Frankly, it’s a mindfuck.
When someone is outwardly nice, but their actions are withholding, dismissive, oblivious — they’re disguising an agenda. Pay no attention to my failed obligations or implied hostilities. Press me about them and you’re a killjoy. But me? I’m nice. How can you be so unkind to the nice?
Done with enough manipulative panache, you can drive anyone crazy with “nice.” God, who is that jerk that nice person is married to? How can they be so pissed off all the time? Donald is so nice!
Contrast crazy “nice” with actual kindness. Kindness is the person who sees you and your broken bag of groceries and stops to help pick them up. They may not even be nice about it. They might grunt, or swear under their breath as they chase your rolling cans of tomatoes, but they go for it anyway. Kindness responds to distress. Kindness offers help without being asked. Kindness doesn’t even know you, but stopping and helping is the right thing to do, even if it’s inconvenient. Even if no one else is watching. Even if you’re a bastard about it. “Hey! You missed a can!”
Kindness isn’t impression management. It’s about empathy. You have to be somewhat selfless to be kind. Kindness responds to people in need. A kind word. An act of kindness. You have to be outwardly focused and connected to others to be kind. Any idiot can do nice. Sustaining it when things get hard is kindness.
I think chumps, like most people, are fooled by nice. We see it as a short-hand for kind — surely this nice person wouldn’t fuck me over? But nice is often just superficial and doesn’t translate to kindness. It’s not enough to act inoffensive — you have to actually not give offense to people and refrain from hurting them. And if you do offend? You have to care, not slather “nice” all over it.
You see this shit in reconciliation all the time. The cheater ups their game a bit. Sends flowers. Shares a few kibbles. But they can’t muster up much sorry. They don’t do remorse. They fail to read the books, or show up for the shrink appointment, or feel anything other beyond “Thank you for not divorcing me and taking my 401K.” It doesn’t deeply hurt them to have hurt their chump. But they can be nice. They can pick up the check. They can compliment your hair. And for some people, that’s enough. They’ll take the nice and find comfort in it.
Did you have a nice cheater? Would they still like to be your friend? Do a kindness to yourself and find some substantive people to hang with instead.
This column ran previously.