Listen To Article

Be nice. Play nice. Nice people. Nice time. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Nice clothes. Nice company. How about, “where’s a nice pencil I can use to stab my eye out?”

I LOATHE NICENESS.

“Pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory” is how Oxford Languages defines nice, which seems like a pretty nice summary. Nice is the “c minus” of the adjective world and unless it’s being used to describe the weather or a painless experience at the doctor’s office, I think it should be put in a nice deep grave along with such gag-worthy words like “things”, “stuff”, “literally”, and “new normal” (looking at you, coronavirus reporters).

I like to think Jesus cringed at niceness too. I mean, he did say “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” to John in the book of Revelation. Lukewarm is a fabulous adjective and a much better way of saying nice, if you ask me. In fact to my knowledge, the quality of “being nice” is affirmed nowhere in the Bible.

I was confronted with the topic of niceness this past week at a West Michigan Black Lives Matter event. As irony would have it, the woman who loathes niceness, found herself standing next to a large clan of folks wearing t-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Be a nice human”, “Choose to be nice”, or simply “Be nice”. This irrationally irritated me so much that I have been reflecting on it all week.

“Beth, what is the big deal? Why do you have any issue with people wearing non-offensive slogans on their clothes? Isn’t it enough that this crew of white people took time out of their nice sunny day to stand in solidarity?” And certainly, I do not want to diminish this choice. This could have very well been the first time these people took a stand and this could be so far out of their comfort zone that they’d need a compass to get back home. Choices like this ARE important.

But.

I am going to assert a perhaps unpopular opinion that prioritizing niceness as a positive human attribute has perpetuated white supremacy and racism into the 21st century of today. Let me explain.

Think about the way white niceness tends to look. It is polite. It is seen but not heard. Niceness squeaks out “don’t worry about it” instead of cussing when a stranger bashes their grocery cart into your Achilles heel. Niceness instructs saying “no” when your wife asks, “do these jeans make my butt look big?” Niceness values comfort at all costs. Niceness is a lie.

Cultural niceness sweeps little dust bunnies of uncomfortable topics under the bed as if this makes everything clean, but then wonders why we are still sneezing.

I wonder if well-meaning white people were less nice and more assertive, risk taking, passionate, and gasp, even mean when appropriate, if oppressed people would want us as allies, instead of desiring to spit us out in all of our lukewarm tepidness. Maybe being nice isn’t all that nice after all. Maybe nice is actually dangerous and deadly to marginalized people.

This brings me to the core reason I hate the word “nice”. I am deathly afraid of the niceness in me. I am a typical midwestern white woman. The value of niceness is fed to us little girls as frequently as fried cheese curds and tuna casserole. Niceness is our birthright. It is our expectation of ourselves and others. It is our disease. We are trained from an early age to keep quiet, be polite and suck it up when someone says something mean or even abusive.

How many times have I clung to my niceness, when I have heard someone make a racist joke or comment? How many times have I seen a person of color be pulled over by three squad cars, but kept driving instead of stopping to make sure everything was going ok, because “it’s not nice to stare”? How many times have I witnessed a store cashier ask for an ID on a cash transaction of a minority mother with her children, because she looks like someone who commits fraud?

And then there’s this million-dollar question. What if someone confronts me about my own racism, but instead of receiving it as the gift of self-discovery it is, I respond defensively because it doesn’t feel polite? You know, because I am too nice to be a racist.

I know a lot of nice people. I bet most of you reading this are nice people. Heck, I am a nice person writing this piece on niceness. But when is it time to “put an end to childish ways” as Paul instructs and trade niceness for virtues that actually are named in the Bible? Fruits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Attributes like boldness, honesty, wisdom, compassion, discernment, justice-seeking and even anger. Spiritual gifts like speaking prophetically about the direness of our current situation while pointing towards our eternal hope. Or, teaching your white friends about white fragility. Or offering radical hospitality that protects black and brown bodies even over our own?

Instead of prioritizing niceness, what is possible if we err on the side of risk-taking over keeping still and silent? I don’t know what the end result looks like, but I can assure you It would change me. It would change you. It would change all of us.

Friends, let us not settle for lukewarmth. Let’s turn up the heat. Let us burn so hot that our words, our actions and our bodies bless the holy lips of the One who created us.

Beth Carroll

Beth Carroll is pastor of discipleship at Hope Church in Holland, Michigan.

36 Comments

  • Well said, Beth, but we do need to balance this with Paul’s list of fruit of the spirit. It is a difficult tightrope that we must walk.

    • Beth Carroll says:

      Hi Mark! Did you see the second half of my piece underneath the picture of the tuna casserole? It’s all about the fruits of the spirit and Christian attributes.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Thank you for challenging us to be more than “nice”. I looked up “Minnesota nice” in Wikipedia and its cultural characteristics “include polite friendliness, an aversion to open confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a direct fuss or stand out, apparent emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.[1] I wonder how a culture with “an aversion to open confrontation” contributed to the “riots of the unheard”?

    [1] Atkins, Annette (2008). Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out. Minnesota Historical Society. pp. 242, 243, 248. ISBN 0-87351-633-8.

    • Susan DeYoung says:

      Spot on, Jon. We Minnesotans have a lot of repenting to do. Read A Good Time for the Truth to hear the BIPOC community share their experiences of life here in the nice land of 10,000 lakes. BTW, today is the 5th anniversary of the killing of the Emanuel 9. We don’t have time to be nice. It’s time for true change.

  • Jill Fenske says:

    I have a similar aversion to Christian nice, which had been perpetuated by the church for a long time.
    But then again I’m from New Jersey.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    Reminds me of Jesus not being so nice in the temple with the money changers, etc. I also love how Peterson translated Mt 10:16 in The Message and he put on the dedication page of his book, Subversive Spirituality (Eerdmans, 1997), “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” Somehow we’re to balance being cunning and being inoffensive as we work among wolves. The OT prophets weren’t always so “nice” either when they spoke truth to power and were the voice of/for the voiceless in their society.

  • Pam Adams says:

    I believe we should be risk takers in this life where there are many things to stab at. Being nice is not the answer even though many teach it. Stand up for Jesus means taking risks.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thank you Beth!
    My wife Sharon and I watched the HBO film, The Hate You Give, on TV last night.
    We resonate so much with this insider perspective from an African American (believer) perspective, we are thinking of renting it and inviting 8 or 10 neighbors to view and discuss it. Highly recommended. The lead black girl, 16 years old, was tempted to be “nice”, being tugged by her white racist girl friends at an elite white school, and her black roots to “speak out” and witness to the (unjustified) killing of a childhood friend as a passenger in his car. So nuanced, showing the complexities of the hot-button issue raging through the US (and the globe) today.
    Being “nice” doesn’t cut it today. I and we need to repent of our racism and become anti-racist in all our relationships. Shalom. Salaam, to all.

  • Mark says:

    In “The Italian Job” the word FINE shows up as an acronym for ‘Freaked Out, Insecure, Neurotic, Emotional’ which effectively destroys any proper and harmless meaning it might have. Could there be a similar acro for NICE which could hasten its demise? (Oh, and I’m from New Jersey too)

  • Helen P says:

    This is spot on!

    I live in hope things will change since I am, more often, often hearing about West Michigan ‘nice’” in more disparaging ways. I would rather be described as kind.

    The word I would wish to disappear is “awesome,” which to me sounds very hollow.

  • Nate Johnson says:

    I recently saw a “Just Be Nice!” sign in a yard, with a confederate flag in the garage – I think that encapsulates it for me. Thanks for the reflections Beth!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Beth, for your take on “niceness.” You paint it as a milk toast attribute that anyone who is afraid to stand up for themselves will display. Well the niceness you abhor sounds a lot like the attributes of peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control that both you and the apostle Paul list, you in this article and Paul in the New Testament. Your attitude sounds more like that of being a bully than that of being “kind” and “gentle” with the exercise of “self control.” It’s the attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It’s the attitude, even when is comes to racial prejudice, that there is no other view than mine so get out of the way. There’s an awful lot of views and perspectives when it comes to racial prejudice, some held by blacks, some by Latinos, some by whites, some left leaning, and some right leaning. It would seem if we are going to make any progress on this social issue, it’s going to take more listening than bullying.

    • Beth Carroll says:

      RLG, thanks for taking the time to reply. In no way do I claim to have a corner on the market on race perspectives. That said, I do try to prioritize the voices of the people of color who are my friends and loved ones and do my best to submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in how I show up around issues of injustice in the world. After all, when Jesus announces his ministry in the temple, he doesn’t say “hey all, can’t we all just get along and be nice?” He says he is here to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free. Pretty assertive and messy words! In fact, as an RCA Pastor, these words are part of my ordination vows. I imagine this must have felt like bullying to those in power then and to those in power today. Peace to you.

      • RLG says:

        Thanks, Beth, for the response and clarifying your willingness to listen to the variety of sides as it pertains to racial bias. It’s not a simple issue with a simple resolution, so we have to listen to others if we hope to ever come to a meaningful conclusion. Your use of Jesus is not the best example of “assertiveness and messiness.” Look where it got him. His holy week finale is anything but assertive. Maybe there’s a lesson there.

        • /svm says:

          His Holy Week finale was Resurrection: that’s not assertive?!

          • Beth Carroll says:

            Yes, I agree, /svm. I don’t believe there is anything passive about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are told to pick up our crosses and follow if we want to be disciples. The gospels demonstrate that the human part of Jesus always had a choice in his work, otherwise the temptation in the desert wouldn’t be a temptation. He was not a passive participant in his mission, he gave his entire life for it! Sorry, RLG I am just not understanding how you think the work of Christ was NOT assertive and messy. Can you explain?

          • RLG says:

            Thanks, /svm and Beth, for not giving in. Historians state Christians “claim” that Jesus rose from the dead but not that he actually did rise from the dead. It’s a Christian claim. Most other religions, if not all, say he did not rise from dead, as do those of no religion. As to assertiveness, Philippians 2 says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Is that what you call assertive? And we are to be like minded.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Preach, sister, and thank you. Whether it’s my genes, my upbringing, my Eneageam (stiil unknown) or negative consequences for being deemed offensive, I know I’ve tried to straddle this line for most of my life.

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    Whoa, RLG seems to see the issue as one of claiming power or being right. I see the change being a move from sideline to playing field. Niceness is causing no problem by being invisible. I hear the call to action, get off the bench and on the field. Jesus told us to make disciples, not hide our belief. Confronting evil is not nice but necessary

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I’m always fascinated by niceness. Growing up, (also a Midwestener) it felt like, “Thou shalt be nice” was the eleventh commandment. The question I’ve asked myself is something like, “Who benefits and who is hurt by me being nice?” Most often, I benefit and those suffering have more heaped on their head, especially when I demand niceness of them (i.e. don’t protest like that … it’s just not “appropriate.”). As to the notion of bullying, I believe that Peter offers us an idea of what love looks like in these situations, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15b-16). In other words, speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15; and putting it into action, 1 John 3:18). The balance of these two, truth and love, is the sincere wrestling with bullying. Again, for me, it’s the sincere question, “Who benefits and who is hurt by how I speak the truth in love or put it into action?” There are no easy answers, but I’m quite sure the nice ones are not the way of Christ (see the consistent way that Christ addresses the Pharisees, the paragons of keeping the status quo and tranquility).

    The next question to wrestle with in regards to niceness and confrontation is, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I think I know how to do that, but again, “Who benefits from my way of doing it and who suffers?”
    Ahhh, the ways of Jesus, a confounding invitation into a rather fascinating mystery …

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    Way to write, Beth!!

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    To me, the Midwestern (and southern, too; I used to live there) emphasis on being “nice” and “not rocking the boat” makes many look askance at those who don’t defend the status quo, who speak emotionally about racism they’ve experienced, who insist that they too are entitled to the same rights as others with privilege enjoy, who know firsthand how systems are rigged against them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written decades ago, sums it up eloquently and profoundly. If you haven’t read it, please do.

  • You make good points, Beth, but I think there is a balance…nice doesn’t have to mean not speaking up in our own ways. The methods of speaking up may not be as overt all the time. Nice doesn’t mean being a push over. Nice doesn’t have to be hollow. Nice doesn’t mean you aren’t standing up for the marginalized every day in your own way because you know that is what Jesus did. Nice doesn’t mean you are looking away from the issues that are pressing in our culture. “Nice” doesn’t always look the same. And sometimes the “nicest” people in the world are those doing the work behind the scenes and not wanting the credit.
    Nice~ but knowing who you are and what you stand for are what makes the difference. I am not ashamed to be called nice~with the added caveat of “nice, with substance”. I don’t really care if people do or do not agree with me (okay I do still struggle with this at age 45), but in reality ~ there is an element of getting along to MOVE THINGS ALONG in the direction that we know in our hearts to be Christlike. Standing up for the oppressed, giving of our time and gifts in ways we are able, and hearing each and every person’s story and truth. I think we all need to be careful of continuing to polarize others as they attempt to make sense of the systemic racism in our world. We are all at different points on the continuum of learning and moving away from this abhorrent behavior~ and each person’s experience/perspective/story is uniquely different. Some of us have been trying to bring forth the message that racism was/is alive and well for years and it has been swept under the rug, while others have simply not even gone there because it was too uncomfortable. Whatever the case may be, the lady wearing the “Nice” shirt (which I don’t own, by the way!) did show up to a protest~ and that, my friend, is a HUGE STEP in the right direction~ (which you said in your article). P.S. I have told you this time and time again, the West Michigan “niceness” is nauseating to me~ I wish it could become the West Michigan “realness”. When I really get to know people who show me their authentic selves, I tend to really like them…okay, not always, but most of the time.

    • Beth Carroll says:

      I love this, Martha! You bring up great points. I was trying to point more to the collective cultural mid-western niceness that is avoidant from being real, as you say, as well as the bad kind of niceness I see in myself. I might not have done a great job of articulating that. The English language is funny, isn’t it? We tend to use the words nice and kind interchangeably, but I think they mean different, nuanced things. In the passage that talks about the fruits of the spirit in Galatians, the word that we call kindness is chrestoses, which means goodness, integrity, kindness, and/or excellence. (a word I think you embody well by the way!) The way I like to differentiate between niceness and kindness is that niceness is something I can do in my own power, but the fruits of the spirit, of which kindness is one, is only sustainable in my life in Christ. It is because usually these gifts require something sacrificial in their use. At any rate, you are demonstrating such vulnerability, boldness, and honesty in your niceness, that maybe I need to think this through more. Thanks for engaging, friend!!

  • Kate Bolt says:

    I love this, Beth. Well said (and I’m not just saying that to be nice). You wrote what is on my heart – I’m trying to undo my niceness.

  • Harris says:

    As a piece of contextualization: Be Nice is also the name of the Mental Health Foundation of West MIchigan https://www.benice.org/. Be Nice posters were throughout our school as an invitation to talk. (Further context, the school I work with is a rather academically pressured place, and has suffered a teen suicide last year). In a mental health context, NICE is an acronym for Notice, Invite, Challenge, Empower.

    ,

  • Beth Myers says:

    I am a white Michigander, a retired English professor, and I completely agree. Importantly, I have been aided in this understanding through my long-time teaching of a one of America’s greatest texts. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. explains his fear of white moderates:

    I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

  • Sheldon Starkenburg says:

    A couple of friends and I spent time reflecting on the book, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (or something similar) written for men who have been taught to be nice instead of strong, good, and brave. The passivity of niceness obviously affects all of us..

  • Melissa Stek says:

    I LOVE THIS. Thank you, thank you. All the truth. Of course discouraging “niceness” is taboo as a woman and makes everyone uncomfortable. GOOD. Keep it up. Truth rarely gets a platform by prioritizing people’s comfort. Carry on!

Leave a Reply