We think of niceness as our due, what we all owe each other, an inalienable human right, but actually we pay a big personal cost for the niceness we insist others show us. Every time we discourage people from sharing disappointing or critical opinions with us, we are asking them to humor us, or to keep us in the dark.
This is sensitivity’s hidden cost: The more sensitive you are, the more people will walk on eggshells around you, and the less you’ll know about where you really stand with them.
Sensitivity invites a news blackout you may not be able to afford.
Niceness is not like air, some basic human entitlement available cheaply everywhere. It has a cost. It takes real effort to bite one’s tongue and choose one’s words carefully. But niceness costs the recipient, too—it's a luxury good you can have only if you’re willing to pay the price in lost access to feedback.
Think of the wall-to-wall niceness that the rich and powerful demand of their household help. They think they can afford to pay the price for the help's supplicating silence. After all, so what if servants keep their honest opinions to themselves? Their bosses don’t care about losing access to their feedback. And if anyone gets so frustrated that he or she quits, a replacement is easily hired.
Still, even the bosses pay a price beyond salary for the niceness they demand. Like you, if they insist that the people around them bite their tongues, those people may well find ways to backbite instead—like pantry servants secretly spitting in the food, spreading rumors, stealing, or plotting insurrection.
Powerful employers can try to prevent these costs: They can hire food-tasters, for example, to keep from getting poisoned. But then, the food-tasters can poison the boss, too. Even at the highest levels, demanding niceness has a cost in security, loyalty, and valuable orienting feedback about how people really see you.
I think the rest of us blind ourselves to "the price of nice" with a few comforting but bogus folk theories about the relationship between niceness and feedback:
1. "There’s A Nice Way to Share Any Feedback."
The myth is that there is no trade-off, no price to niceness, since there’s always a nice way to give any feedback, however critical. It’s all in how you word it, or your tone or intention.
We hear this resonate in how people sometimes couch an insistence on niceness. They might say, “When I tell you to be nice I’m not telling you to be quiet: By all means, say anything you think or feel. Be honest. Just convey it nicely; that’s all I ask. Always be honest; always be nice. The two are not incompatible.”
This argument is wrong—and risky for you if you make it, because no matter how carefully one crafts it, lots of critical feedback simply won’t feel nice to you. If you can dismiss criticism by saying, “I’ll take the feedback, just not that way,” the other person has to decide whether it’s worth trying to say it "nicely," by your standards. After a few tries they’ll just give up, leaving you in the dark.
Pretend that we’re open to all honest feedback so long as it’s worded nicely, and we’ll still pay the price for insisting on the niceness.
2. "What Can’t Be Said Nicely Isn’t Worth Saying."
Another myth holds that while not all feedback can be stated nicely, all useful feedback can be: “There’s always a nice way to give constructive feedback, and if you can’t think of a nice way to share it, that’s evidence that it’s not really constructive feedback. It’s just hurtful and shouldn’t be shared.”
Sounds good on paper, but again, in practice it's bogus, and dangerous to embrace. Saying, “If you can’t meet my feedback delivery standards, then your opinion is not worth sharing," is just another more direct way to invite a costly news blackout.
3. "Niceness is the right way to show respect."
This one is half true: Niceness is one of two ways we show respect. The other is its opposite, giving honest critical feedback.
We honor people by biting our tongues, but we also show them disrespect by treating them as too weak to handle our true opinions. Conversely, we can humiliate people by giving them critical feedback, but we also honor them, respecting them as strong enough to consider our criticism.
4. "When we teach people to be nice, we’re civilizing them."
We often act as though, in banishing feedback we don’t like, we don’t just chase those words out of people’s mouths but we chase those thoughts out of their minds, as if commanding, “Don’t say that,” translates as, “Don’t even think that.”
But who among us has that control over others, and who should?
We all have our intuitions, and right or wrong, they’re ours. They’re open to suggestion but we don’t allow others to simply commandeer our minds, banishing our intuitions with the command, “That’s not nice.”
This is what produces the news blackout. “That’s not nice” doesn’t eliminate the news in other people’s opinions. It just eliminates your access to that news. People are still thinking those thoughts around you—you’re just not privy to them.
Niceness matters. It’s often worth its cost in lost feedback. But you put yourself at serious risk by failing to recognize the cost. A niceness connoisseur’s rarified standards can make him as cultivated as a mushroom—trapped in the dark.
Every time we discourage people from sharing thoughts we don’t want to hear, we risk losing access to thoughts we will at some point, wish we had heard.
When insisting on nice, think twice.