Toxic Niceness

Recently I watched a guy make an accusation, float a lie and shut down a meeting. Then he withdrew and read his email on a Treo. (I knew what he was saying was inaccurate as did a few others in the room. A couple of days later some notes surfaced on the Internet that confirmed this.)

However, it was not only a well-practiced tactic, it was effective. I attribute it to two basic ingredients. Some in the room had no clue what he was talking about. Others were too nice to challenge him. (One courageous soul did effectively raise a voice but the meeting had come to a halt after he dropped this bomb.)

When niceness is the prevailing value, this disruptive tactic works and it often goes unchallenged because under the constraints of niceness we don’t know how to respond. In certain settings–meetings between business leaders, faculty, advertising agency staff and their clients, and, yes, mainline religious groups–folks are supposed to be nice. Confrontation is anathema in these polite settings.

In my imagination I can hear good readers of this blog asking me, “Why did you write that post, and why did you use the word lie?” In some circles I travel in we don’t talk this way and we don’t name our demons. And that’s the point. It’s time. Good people are hurt and good work is denigrated when we don’t name bad behavior and deal with it.

If a response comes, it’s likely to be subtle if not oblique, and it will be delivered in words that require a PhD to understand and translate. I call these the non-sequiturs of toxicity because niceness that allows bullying is toxic.

A frontal response is more likely to be rebuffed as a violation of the code of niceness than received as an appropriate response to destructive behavior.

I talked recently with a teacher who confronted a psychologist about a dispute over the placement of a child in a remedial reading program. The child has shown no progress in reading scores for four years. She is functionally illiterate going into fifth grade.

The psychologist wanted to keep the child in her current setting. The teacher wanted to transfer her to a school with remedial support. When the teacher disagreed with the psychologist’s recommendation, she offended the school’s unwritten code of niceness and her behavior became an issue.

Forget the fact that the child’s well-being is at stake, the teacher was expected to make nice. So she spent the remainder of her day explaining her response and her recommendation for the child got lost in the shuffle.

I think this kind of niceness is more prevalent in middle and upper-middle class settings but it isn’t foreign to working class and poor working class folks, either. Children of abusive, authoritarian parents learn coping mechanisms like niceness to avoid beatings and psychological abuse.

It’s long been recognized that excessive niceness is a skill developed by children of alcoholics. Learning early that their behavior can trigger violent physical or verbal abuse, these children develop sophisticated use of silence and sublimate their emotions in order to keep family life on an even keel. They lie to the outside world to avoid embarrassment and parental backlash. Niceness is part of the mask.

It is toxic, of course, because it sublimates genuine emotions and propagates a lie. It covers shame, which is internalized and leaves terrible emotional wounds. When niceness allows lying to go unchallenged and bullies to bully, it creates an environment of silence, mistrust and under-the-surface hostility that renders an organization dysfunctional and damages individuals.

Niceness may be endemic in religious organizations. Vapid niceness is confused with compassion and even with love. It hides insidious oppressive behavior and can make us complicit in allowing manipulative people to run rough-shod over others who are afraid to speak the truth or confront them.

As early as 1979 sociologist John Murray Cuddihy wrote about an “ingenuous niceness” in mainline religious groups that sociologist Peter Berger later called a “sacrament of American civility.”

Prior to this, mainline Protestants endured a period of not being nice. The social revolution that gained steam in the Sixties produced a confrontational conversation that wasn’t “nice” but was instead prophetic and challenging.

However, as mainline denominations experienced decline they also began to lose their nerve and these strong voices faded and the dialogue turned nice again.

Niceness can be a form of cowed silence, which arises from fear and oppression, according to psychologist Evelyn Sommers. She calls it the “tyranny of niceness” and points out that “Niceness fails to live up to its reputation. It does not make relationships easier, does not guarantee a stamp of approval nor improve the quality of life.”

In fact, Sommers points to the damage this distorted niceness does to the authentic self and how it damages relationships because truth doesn’t get expressed. It puts distance between people who are seeking to protect themselves from the pain of confrontation and rejection, hardly the basis for effective relationships.

There is a place for niceness in the workplace and the family but it must be authentic and not a mask for false equilibrium. It shouldn’t cover up dysfunction. It must be accompanied by truthfulness, responsibility and accountability.

Willingly or innocently, we are all complicit when these conditions are not present, and niceness masks bullying or other destructive behaviors. A perceptive reader will discern that part of what I am writing is autobiographical. I’m still learning.

And one thing I’ve learned is this: when the bullying and the lying start, it’s not the time to be nice. Niceness can be toxic.

One Response to “Toxic Niceness”

  1. Myriam January 13, 2009 at 4:24 am #

    Oh, how I nearly jumped for joy to read this article!!!!! Toxic niceness is something that I have been trying to fight in the school I’ve been working in. I was bullied and lied about by one particular teacher for several months. I tried several tactics to make him stop, including finally going to management to complain about his behaviour which others had been complaining about to each other, but not to the teacher concerned as they were afraid of him. However, each managerial person declined any responsibility, saying that the issue was ‘someone else’s’ domain. Others who had been in the room when the bully had screamed obscenities at me every time I had expressd a different opinion to his over something quite trival (the origins of a saying) denied in front of management that he had spoken in any such way. I challenged them on this. They accused me of being ‘immature’ as I wasn’t interacting ‘nicely’. They refused to say anything about their lies. When I said that they were using ‘niceness’ as a weapon against the truth, and consequently supporting the bully which meant that they were guilty of passive bullying, they got up and walked out of the room, saying that they ‘shouldn’t have to listen to that’. One from then on refused to talk to me, even to return my ‘good morning’s. Finally, I made a HUGE fuss and told the bullying treacher in public that his behaviour was TO STOP. The Head called a meeting and told me that I had to apologize to the whole staff for being ‘offensive’. I said ‘absolutley not’, and that people needed to address the issue that if ‘niceness doesn’t work, then to insist on continuing with it is to insist that victim of bullying continues being a victim of bullying.’ I asked if there were to be a rape in the school, would they demand an apology from the victim for screaming out as it would be upsetting everyone’s cosy little lives? Everyone either sat there in silence or said that that question obviously showed that I had problems. The Head allowed everyone to refuse to address anything I brought up about the issue of what you call ‘toxic niceness’. Eventually, I got up and walked out, saying that I would talk no further about the issue until everyone had apologised to me for being passive bullies. Most colleagues now refuse to speak to me and make an issue of not sitting next to me, management makes a point of refusing to acknowledge my presence. I have pointed out that this behaviour is bullying. Stony silence. Conversation gets changed, all comments addressed to anybody but me. I stick with my views on ‘toxic niceness’ and will not sell out.

    I would like to see it obligatory to have the issue of toxic niceness addressed in the so-called anti-bullying policies of organizations.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image