Am I too nice?

I've been "nice" my whole life, but I need to know when to draw the line.

By Cary Tennis
Published February 19, 2004 1:33AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

How does one know if she is too nice? I am persistently wary of tripping into this category. A respectful, thoughtful, accepting person who doesn't ask for much in return, I have a shy side in addition to my creative side, and I tend to avoid confrontation whenever I can discern a way around it. I've been nice since my high school days when I was genuinely concerned whether the guy behind me could see the overhead as well as I could; I was nice in my college years when I overloaded myself with writing work mostly to keep the editor at the school paper from going crazy and to use as procrastination fuel for my own studies.


Nice. To my endless irk, the word has been used on me as long as I can recall. It's a word that seems on par with weak, spineless, mousy brown. Curtains are nice. That skirt your mom is wearing is nice. Nice is not just a simplification of what I am; it's a generic simplification. Is it possible that I do blend in that much?

When my boyfriend says, "I like you, you're nice," I feel like he's squirted grapefruit pulp in my eye. I'd rather hear "I love you," but he insists that he is trying to tell me why he loves me, insists that liking the one you're with is most important. He's not descriptively talented, but because I see his point, I'm alternately blasé and suspicious about his strange insistence not to exchange one generic term of endearment (you're nice) for another (I love you).

Oh, I'm sure there are a host of other issues involved in the matter of love-speak between us: personality issues, psychological ones. But on my side, it all comes down to the battle of my true, nice nature (the mousy brown area of emotional ambiguity) and that one little fear: that I am in fact eating too much of my own feeling so that other people will not feel bad.


I don't often feel used. But I do seem to have a higher tolerance than most, or a lesser reaction, however you look at it, when things don't go my way. But is it possible that my niceness is allowing advantage to being taken in more subtle ways?

I'm looking for an easy way for a nice person to know when to draw the line, when she's giving too much away, when manners are compromising her truest self. Any assistance you can provide will be well taken.

Too Nice?


Dear Too Nice,

Very interesting note. What you have, it seems to me, is a great well of empathy and kindness. Before going into it more, I would say that where you draw the line is if you really want something for yourself and you step aside and let someone else have it, and then pretend not to feel a sense of disappointment or loss. But the situations you describe to me sound like moments where you were considerate and polite, or moments where you took on extra work to relieve the burden on others. Those are instances of what I call social genius, an extraordinary capacity for cooperative endeavor. In short, you're a great team player.


Where I think your compassion could get you into trouble is where achieving an admirable goal requires you to outshine someone else or prevent their advancement. Watch out for situations like that. For instance, if a promotion opens up but someone else wants it too, you have to recognize that it's not your job to manipulate who gets the promotion. If you do less well out of kindness, you're doing everyone a disservice. Your job is to do your best. Who gets the promotion is out of your control. Sometimes you're going to shine. It's not your fault. Sometimes you're just shiny.

On the positive side, you might look at areas of endeavor where your talent is appreciated and needed. International relief agencies, human rights organizations, hospitals, churches and charities all need people with great stores of compassion and the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes.

As to this business of being "nice," I think you nailed it when you said that the young man you're seeing is "not descriptively talented." He's probably not sensitive to nuance in speech. Perhaps he doesn't know how touchy you are about this particular word. But nobody wants to be called "nice." It's not a nice word.


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Cary Tennis

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