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4 Ways to Deal With People Who Just Aren’t Very Nice

3. Don't go overboard trying to win them over.

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When you’re in the presence of a genuinely nice person, you know it. They seem easy to please, make you feel good about yourself, and always have a positive spin on any situation.

But people who just aren’t all that warm and fuzzy create tension and limit our ability to enjoy ourselves when we interact with them.

Imagine that you’ve got an appointment with a new physician to discuss your recent bout of allergies. You’re escorted into an exam room where you wait, hopefully, for this individual to show a sincere desire to help you overcome your persistent cough and sniffles. The door opens, and a stern-looking woman in a white coat enters, a slight scowl on her face. Although she makes eye contact with you, her general demeanor makes you feel that there’s something wrong with you for having come in with this problem. She records your symptoms, pauses to reflect, and issues the pronouncement that a simple over-the-counter remedy should clear things up. A cursory goodbye, and she’s out the door.

You wonder: Is there something wrong with me for having come to the physician with what now seems to be a minor and highly correctable problem? Perhaps if I’d been a little bit clearer or worded things differently, I’d have gotten a more sympathetic reaction from her.

The fact of the matter is that some people just aren’t all that nice. Your physician was one of those no-nonsense types who just doesn't offer much in the way of kindness. On the positive side, at least she tells it like it is without much fluff. Still, though, you’d perhaps prefer some cushioning to her sparsely-worded recommendation.

Let’s switch the scene: You’re working with a group on a project in which each of you is expected to provide input into a series of decisions. One member continuously makes disparaging comments about everyone else’s ideas—including your own. This individual appears to take pride in being as grumpy as possible, but no one besides you seems bothered. One night, you receive an email from this person that truly irritates you so much that you’re ready to shoot back a reply in which you express your outrage. Before hitting "send," though, you have second thoughts and decide to hold off.

Not responding to an annoying email from someone who consistently bugs you is actually a good idea. It’s all too easy to deal harshly with people who aren’t nice and who behave in negative ways. But if you consider yourself a nice person, this route carries with it the risk, ironically, that you will be perceived negatively as well.

The dilemma of how to handle a not-so-nice person without seeming not nice yourself is a common one. Fortunately, psychology offers some perspective from the vantage point of personality trait theory. The quality of agreeableness is the dimension that comes closest to "niceness,” in that it includes the tendency to be kind, sympathetic, straightforward, altruistic, compliant, tender, and modest.

People who are nice might get nicer when they have nice experiences with other people. You’re bound to be friendlier to someone who smiles, shows sympathy, and goes along with the group. That grumpy team member, on the other hand, is someone you’ll avoid as much as possible should you happen to bump into each other on the street or get to your meeting before anyone else arrives. This will only antagonize that person more: Niceness can feed on itself but so can nastiness.

It seems quite possible, then, that niceness breeds niceness and in fact, there’s evidence that nice people have a sunnier way of viewing the world. University of Illinois psychologist Konrad Bresin teamed up with North Dakota State University’s Michael Robinson (2015) to investigate how undergraduates varying in levels of agreeableness choose to expose themselves to pleasant or unpleasant experiences.

Across a series of three studies, Bresin and Robinson varied the positivity of pictures and recorded the length of time that participants high and low in agreeableness spent observing these images. The individuals low in agreeableness—that is, those who weren’t especially nice—spent more time looking at the negative pictures. Those high in agreeableness viewed positive and negative images almost equally.

Varying the method somewhat, Bresin and Robinson next asked participants to choose between a series of optional activities in which one choice was positive (such as a seeing a romantic movie or listening to an upbeat song) and the other negative (watching a horror film or listening to a sad song). Here again, agreeableness played a strong role in predicting a person’s choice of positive vs. negative experiences. People high in agreeableness clearly made choices that would give them uplifting experiences and those low in agreeableness showed a stronger preference for the options on the negative end of the scale.

Correlation may not be causation, but the findings of this study support the idea that personality influences behavior (and more than vice versa). Nice people tend to assure that they’ll stay upbeat and positive through their choice of experiences while the opposite is true of those who aren’t so nice.

Now let’s get to the question of how you can improve your relationships with people who fall on the low end of the agreeableness continuum. Follow these four tips and you’ll be able to face the not-so-nice people you know without becoming discouraged:

  1. Don’t meet grumpiness with grumpiness.

    It’s easy to respond in kind and harder to respond with kindness, but if you take it down a notch, you might allow the other person’s inner niceness to shine through.

  2. Ask whether you’re projecting your own negativity onto others.

    In other words, are you the one in a bad mood or who is inclined toward low agreeableness? If so, maybe you should give the other person a little more benefit of the doubt.

  3. Don’t go overboard in your effort to cheer the person up.

    You probably won’t succeed and may actually cause the opposite reaction, or at least engender suspicion of what your real motives are.

  4. Accept the inevitable if in fact it’s inevitable.

    You might not be able to change your adversary’s personality but you can change your reactions. If you, so to speak, “let it go,” you won’t allow yourself to be brought down or distressed by this person’s negative demeanor.

It would be wonderful if we could live in a world in which everyone was nice to each other all he time. However, there are those who seem to have low agreeableness burned into their personalities. Learning how to deal with them may not change them, but it can keep you focused on your own goals for personal fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015.


Bresin, K., & Robinson, M. D. (2015). You are what you see and choose: Agreeableness and situation selection. Journal Of Personality, 83(4), 452-463. doi:10.1111/jopy.12121.

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