I spent a few days this week wondering if I am just too darn nice.
It's not that anyone lately has accused me of niceness -- certainly not my family and not even, alas, my editors. (For some odd reason, they are more likely to leave phone messages pleading, "Now don't freak out, but we had to make some changes," as if I am a gorilla in need of mood stabilizers.)
It is just that I was reading The Tyranny of Niceness, Unmasking the Need for Approval, a new book coming out this month by Toronto psychologist Evelyn Sommers.
She argues that we are sacrificing our authenticity on the altar of niceness. Lots of people who find our modern society indescribably rude and not nice at all would be surprised to hear this.
Yet, as Dr. Sommers describes niceness -- somewhere between a pathology and a bad cultural habit -- I realized that, on certain occasions, even I go around being "nice" when I don't mean it.
Being nice in her book means not voicing real opinions, keeping silent when you profoundly disagree, for example, with the ethics and values of the company you work for.
Being nice means being unable to say no, instead saying, through gritted teeth, "no problem" when the boss asks you to stay late or even to do someone else's work.
Being nice means saying sorry "far too often" -- even in elevators when someone crowds you -- and saying "yes even more often than that."
People caught in the tyranny of niceness, she writes, "drop everything to help others and the words 'I don't know' or 'I can't take that on' are not part of their vocabulary."
Hmm, sound familiar to anyone out there beleaguered at work?
Her book is devoted more broadly to life issues than to work. We don't actually start out nice in life, notes the author. "Infants are not nice. They are as loud and demanding as nice people are passive."
But we end up that way. "It is a long oppressive journey from the first demanding wails of infancy to the muted niceness of adulthood."
Citing everyone from George Orwell -- who wrote that social control depends on our silence -- to George Bush -- whose admonition after Sept. 11, 2001, that "either you are with us or with the terrorists," deliberately made his country a fear-filled place for legitimate dissenters -- Dr. Sommers warns us to be vigilant for ways in which we are cowed into silence by the pressure to be nice.
Oprah Winfrey famously called this "the disease to please."
However, the problem with calling it a disease, cautions Ms. Sommers, is that it "leaves the sufferer alone with the problem."
Instead, she says, we are silenced into niceness by our institutions, including the family --parents constantly implore their children to "be nice" when they really mean shut up -- our religious organizations, our schools and our universities, which do not reward honest and respectful dissent as much as they should, and by the working world, which demands our silence on many levels.
What we really fear is disapproval and rejection, which most of us will do anything to avoid. But trying to avoid disapproval by being nice is a trap, typified by "passivity, obedience, denial, avoidance and fear of making a direct, honest statement," she writes.
Being nice in the extreme results in loss of control, loss of authenticity and, perhaps most sadly losing a sense of what our real needs and desires and feelings are.
At work, being nice can lead to burnout, Ms. Sommers says.
It makes sense. How many times can you say yes when you really mean no and not become unutterably fatigued?
I could argue (nicely) with a few of her points.
The author seems to be stuck in the past when she claims that "women who are not nice are considered socially unacceptable," that we are, in fact, still being silenced in our professional and personal lives.
She says that our personalities -- and, most importantly, our intelligence -- continue to be obscured by the societal imperative to always be nice.
But, surely, as women head more institutions and operate as managers, they are gaining the freedom to be more direct in their dealings with people, to do without that fake layer of niceness.
Most businesses don't have time for nice, no matter what gender you are.
My other critical response is to Dr. Sommers strongly equating "silence" with "niceness."
Sometimes silence is born out of fear, and sometimes out of maturity. Few of us have the freedom to be completely honest. To tell your boss her values stink or the company ethos is distasteful to you is to guarantee unemployment in short order.
To be grown up, in fact, is to accept that life is full of nuances and contradictions.
A certain amount of withholding of one's most fervent opinions can be a sign of maturity, a way of figuring out how to work effectively within the strictures of any culture.
But her points are certainly worth thinking about.
She exhorts parents to teach their children how to effectively disagree -- their safety, never mind their success in life, may depend upon it.
She also encourages direct expression of opinion or information.
"People can take direct disagreement in the workplace," she told me in a telephone interview, and she writes that "a wonderful byproduct of such honesty is the lack of resentment when you agree to fulfill a request for someone because you want to do it."
Like her, I'm far more impressed by people who respectfully and directly ask me to do something than by a manipulative approach.
She also warns against "lazy language" -- when you agree in a vapid way because it's easier than carefully voicing objections to a project or a company goal.
When you stop agreeing with people just because you want to be nice, she says, you gain something far more valuable: the freedom to agree "because you have weighed the options and believe in that agreement." You are also freer to take risks, to be more yourself at work.
Of course, there is the obvious disclaimer in her book -- the author is not encouraging us to be nasty -- just more honest about our own needs and desires.
Moreover, there is true value in being kind, she says, which is far better than nice.
Oh, good, because I've come to the profound conclusion I am not that nice after all.
Now I suppose, I just have to worry about being kind. It's always something, isn't it?