I grew up in Wisconsin. You may have heard the phrase “Minnesota Nice” – the idea that people in the state of Minnesota are some of the nicest in the country. This is true of Wisconsin as well. It’s a Midwestern theme. We are nice here. Friendly and hospitable and warm and honest and… nice. We will dig your car out of the snow bank for you, and when we’re done, we’ll probably pour you some cocoa.
If, in the process, you track muddy snow on our brand-new carpet? We won’t mention it.
But we’ll probably talk about it after you leave.
This tends to be true of women, too. We are taught from a very young age that being nice is a great virtue.
“Don’t hit your brother. That isn’t nice.”
“Don’t run in church. It isn’t nice.”
“Behave like a lady. There! That’s nice.”
Yet between the lines of this language of niceness is another message:
Don’t speak your mind. Don’t let people know if you disagree. Don’t ever openly express what you need or want.
Niceness is a double-edged sword, with politeness and agreeability on one side (all things we can generally get behind) and passivity and martyrdom on the other (in a word: yuck).
I would argue that niceness can actually be a vice.
As a college student I sat through dozens of dorm meetings where our floor of thirty women would sit in a circle and throw passive complaints around like Frisbees.
“Well, some people aren’t washing their dishes, and it doesn’t bother me, but I think those people should be more considerate.”
“The other end of the hall plays loud music when people are trying to sleep. I’m a night owl, so it doesn’t wake me up, but I think it bothers some people here.”
“I think we should make up a chore chart. I’m not pointing fingers, but some people always leave the bathroom a mess.”
After sitting through yet another excruciating one of these, I asked one of my guy friends if they ever had meetings like this on his all-male floor.
“Nope,” he said.
“Then how do you get those things resolved?” I asked.
“If I see someone leaving a mess or hear loud music at an ungodly hour, I tell him to knock it the heck off.”
As adults, this tendency toward Christian niceness and away from loving truth-speaking doesn’t go away on its own. We have to work on it. It’s a challenge.
A pastor friend of mine told me that he’s been working with his own church for years to eliminate the “in-coats” conversations: the talks that happen in the church parking lot after the meeting, because few people were willing to give their honest opinions in the meeting itself. Niceness got in the way of problem solving, and his church struggled to move forward.
Of course, niceness isn’t inherently bad. It’s a great social lubricant. I love walking into a store in the Midwest and being helped by a friendly salesperson. I enjoy the chitchat offered by a grocery store clerk or the oil change folks at the car dealership. It’s pleasant. It’s congenial. It’s nice, in the best possible way.
The problem comes when niceness becomes a cover for passive-aggression. When it turns from social politeness into laziness, cowardice, or even surreptitious malice–decidedly un-Christian ways to relate to others. Because really, how nice is it to talk behind someone’s back because you’re too nice to tell the truth to their face? How nice is it to ambush someone rather than speak to them one on one? How nice is it to hold in an important opinion while the frustration simmers inside of you, only to vent it later, to someone else?
Passive niceness is not solely a female problem, obviously, but in Christian circles it can grow to be quite insidious. Minnesota nice. Wisconsin nice. Christian nice.
A friend of mine in college was fond of saying, “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was compassionate and caring and he told the truth. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus was nice.”
Indeed, our Lord spoke truth in all its power, whether he was inviting burdened people to come to him for rest or explaining to the Pharisees that they were nothing but whitewashed tombs. Merciful? Yes. Forgiving? Definitely. Gracious? Indeed. But nice?
I write this not as a diatribe, but as a conversation starter.
What’s been your experience with “Christian nice,” with women or men or both? Have you ever been on the receiving end of passive aggression of this kind? Have you ever dished it out and later realized your error? What have you learned?
And perhaps the most important question, as we follow Jesus as our guide, model, and Savior: what is the purpose of niceness in our walks of discipleship, and in our relationships with our Christian sisters and brothers?
But remember – be nice!