For most of my life, I sneered at the word, “nice.” Nice was boring, subservient, and docile. In the words of Deborah Adele, it required the “packaging of self in a presentable box, imposed by an outer authority.” Yuck. Cool people laughed at authority. They were real and raw. Their hair was dyed purple and shaped like dinosaur scales three feet above their scalps. Cool people didn’t have jobs. They sold paintings of angry faces on sidewalks and played bass in bars at night. They were not afraid to yell at anyone, not their mom, a cop, or a stranger walking a dog across the street.
At forty-five, I am finally recognizing this attitude as naïve and even arrogant. “Nice” is not fake; it is not cowardly; it is not manipulation for control. It is, actually, a sign of great will and big heart. It requires that one rein in one’s impulsive reactions enough to give others a chance to express their own feelings. It values others’ lives as well as well as one’s own.
In seventh grade, I decided to be cool. Actually, I decided to try really hard to be cool. My recipe for success was (1) don’t talk much, (2) sneer often, (3) never smile. The first day I blew it by 7:30 AM when I said a cheery greeting to the school principal, who shook hands with students at the door every morning. The second day I made it to lunch, but then plummeted into non-coolness by joining two younger kids sword fighting with French fries. I couldn’t even be cool around David Stevens, a majestic eighth grader with black hair and blue eyes. During recess when he deigned to say hello, I smiled back like a stewardess and sang, “Hellllloooooo to you, toooooo!!!!!”
By the end of the week, I quit. “I’m happy, I like school, I’m not cool.” I wrote the words in red in my math notebook, defeated. Yet I remained haunted by images of cool people, those tubercular looking, long limbed adolescents who flaunted crappy grades and smoked everything. They hated their parents, their teachers, their country. And they were mean. Cool people loved standing in corners laughing in ways that made everyone else feel like they’d stepped in dog poo – or were dog poo. Sarcasm, exclusion, and derision – these were their hallmark qualities, with wits sharp enough to cut through flesh. I could never be like them, but if I could have had long black hair, tall black boots and an attitude to match, I would have.
Only now can I finally see that not nice is not cool. Sarcasm and arrogance are signs of small hearts and narrow minds. Nice is regal. Smiling at people for no reason is a gesture that promises, “I think the best of you and invite you to say hello.” Chatting kindly with others is a generous way to share one’s life. Giving compliments is a powerful way to help a stranger or friend.
“I really like your pants,” I remember a cool person saying to me during a sixth grade mythology class.
“Thanks,” I said back, smoothing a hand over my new pants’ soft navy ridges.
“Do you own anything other than corduroy?”
I was about to say, No, I just love it so much, when I looked up at the cool person’s face. She wasn’t smiling; she was sneering. Then I looked at her friend, who was sneering, too. I wished right then for words to flare like fire out my mouth to scorch their pretty white noses. I wasn’t blessed with a quick wit, though, so I just dropped my red face towards the books on my desk. I never reached for those pants again with the same sense of dazzle.
How can I as a parent protect my kids from cool kids? How do I inspire them to choose being nice rather than trying to be cool? Our culture is overrun by not-nice people as much as any junior high. Sarcasm and derision are practiced by all media, most celebrities, far too many politicians, and just about every pop singer out there. Why and when did such character traits become synonymous with cool?
Who is brave enough to be earnest in public? Who can use words to portray direct meaning and look you in the eyes while speaking? Who cares about saying please and thank you and waiting for a turn to speak? Who chooses to value others’ feelings as much as one’s own?
These manners matter; they can even save marriages. My partner Eric and I have been together for twelve years. It took us ten to realize we didn’t need to express exactly how we feel exactly when we feel it. Eric is an entrepreneur and has lots of ideas. I have various feelings about some of those ideas, and I have learned not to articulate all of them. Time will choose which of Eric’s ideas we end up discussing on a practical level. “Are you f–ing crazy?” is not cool to say to someone who’s sharing his imagination while looking at the moon through a window. Neither is the sarcastic remark, “Geez, why didn’t I think of that?” Worst of all, when I am mean and dismissive, my kids pick up on it immediately and start winging barbed comments at each other with perfect emulation.
I dare every one of us – young and old – to uphold the values of “nice.” Live these values and speak up for them. Nice is cool. It is also powerful, more so than the rage that has us throwing insults at others like grenades. I’ve grown up from the sixth grade girl who put her head down and can now wield language with a bit of heft. But this skill doesn’t improve my life or anyone else’s. And isn’t that why we humans are here on this spinning globe, to enhance the experience of life for ourselves and others? For my children, for myself, for you, and for your children, I answer YES.