I've done a little online dating lately and it's notable how many women (and perhaps men--I don't know) list "niceness" as a priority.  They want a nice guy.  Well, I certainly understand.  I want a nice gal too. But experience has shown me that we can't simply pop this positive sounding word at the top of our wish lists as though its meaning is as obvious as "Pledge" on a grocery list. Nice is the preferred outcome but we don't have a clear way to distinguish nice from not nice by execution alone.  Nice isn't simply voice tone or not swearing or smiling or putting a kind hand on your shoulder.  Any of those gestures can be truly nice or can mask meanness. 

As I keep pointing out, vices are a half-step away from virtues. Lying looks almost exactly like honesty. If it didn't, a lie would be too blatant to work.  Meanness is often a half-step from niceness or else we'd never get away with being mean. If you want to slip your meanness under the radar there's no better way than dressing it up to look nice.

For example, there's a version of niceness that is used to deflect all challenges to one's self-esteem. I'll call it nicessism.  The highly narcissistic are threatened by anything that makes them doubt themselves, maybe because they think so highly of themselves, maybe because they are so plagued by self-doubt that another challenge would break the camel's back, maybe both.

One simple solution then is to call any threatening feedback "mean" or "not nice." That's nicessism, the not-nice trick of locking out all disappointing feedback by calling it "not nice."

Here I'm embelleshing on my recent article on the ambiguity between self-centered (bad) and self-assertive (good), between being selfish (bad) and standing up for oneself (good). The subtext of most arguments and debates is conflict over just this.  I may think you've crossed into my territory when you think you're just standing in territory that's rightfully yours.  The boundaries between territories are well enough marked that we don't fight all the time but when we do fight it's about ambiguous boundaries.  So a little more about narcissism, yet another vice that's a half-step away from a virtue: self-esteem.

Narcissism is a diagnosable mental disorder but in milder form its something we're all born with. For babies it really is "all about me."  Even as adults most of us somehow always seem to prevail as the heroes of our personal narratives. 

Yes, there are cultural and individual differences, but not enough to make anyone immune to narcissism.  Some differences are temperamental but a lot are simply functions of opportunity.  If I'm homeless in Bombay, I may insist narcissistically that I deserve the best patch of sidewalk. If I'm a top AIG exec, I may insist narcissistically that I deserve yet another bonus. 

Narcissism is natural. My nerve endings don't extend into your body, nor yours into mine. Obviously then, even with "mirror neurons" we feel what we feel more directly than we feel what others feel.  I feel my successes and failures more palpably than I feel yours, so I'm at greater pains to try to avoid the pain of my failures and to enjoy the experience of my successes, even at your expense. To me, I'm kind of a big deal and I'll assume the same to you, you are a kind of a big deal too.

Since this mild narcissism (at this intensity indistinguishable from self-esteem) is a universal trait, it works out OK for the most part.  You make a priority out of you; I make a priority out of me and that way we all get our needs and wants met.  It's the free market thing.  If everyone pursues self-interest, society as a whole is better off. But by now any realistic economist will tell you free markets have their imperfections.  Leaning into my mild narcissism, making it a little less than mild, I can take advantage of you. I can ratchet that advantage until I'm indulging in the equivalent of AIG uber-bonuses and you are, as it were, homeless in Bombay. 

So where do you draw the line between narcissism and self-esteem? Its a good question to keep alive not just in research but in our personal lives. There may be no lesson as important for children to learn than how to put checks on narcissism.  And there may be no greater risk to society than narcissism unchecked.  So how do you control it?

My guess is we need to name and tame the various moves we can make that give us permission to let our narcissism run wild and free.

Almost no one intends to be narcissistic. In a way that's great news.  If everyone intends to curb it, and then translates that intention into action, then narcissism should be constrained as a result.  But intentions are squirrelly things. Sometimes they substitute for action. I can insist that "I would never want to be narcissistic" and think that my insistence alone does the trick. In fact, we often translate our passionate declarations of intent into freedom to let a trait go unchecked (see The invincible man). 

I've noticed in myself a tendency that feeds this.  When someone does something that disappoints or incenses me, instantaneously I'm blinded to any recognition that I might, at times, do the same as they have just done.  It's as though a double-standard snaps to my defense. I think "How dare they?" and if you asked me in that instant whether I had ever dared do something similar it would be the furthest thing from my mind. We testosterone-marinaded men might have a harder time with this than gentler souls. I don't know. In a way I doubt it.  Narcissistic righteous indignation does not appear to be gender biased

Given righteous indignation's prevalence I don't hold myself or my intimates to a standard of never expressing it.  Rather I employ the five minute rule (give or take a few minutes or hours).  We are forgiven our initial impulsive narcissistic trespasses into righteous indignation, but within a little bit we should put a muzzle on it stepping back from  the double standard to look honestly at the possibility that we're over-reacting.

I wish more people treated niceness as a question rather than an answer. It's not enough to say "niceness? I can't define it, but I know it when I see it," because actually we don't always know it when we see it.  Sometimes the nicessist in us gets pitched a challenge and, without giving it a thought, our intuition bats it out of the park with a simple, "That's not nice."

There's a fairly simple rule that can help tame nicessism.  Don't assume that there is always a nice way to say things and that therefore if it doesn't feel good it was said wrong. We must do our best to say things tactfully but also to hear them tolerantly rather than simply assuming that if the message disappoints it's not nice and therefore can be dismissed.

Because if you can't hear anything but nice, you don't have to hear anything at all.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Just Be Nice? No, Thanks! is a reply by Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D.

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