Starkraving's Guide to Being Nice

I'm not always nice (none of us are), but I try to stay aware of what it means to being nice. I want to live in a society whose culture celebrates niceness over nastiness, attentiveness over disregard, and thoughtful appraisal over snap judgment. I am a work in progress, as we all are, and my hope is that by discussing the gradual erosion of niceness, we can all work to overcome the downward slide through our immediate surroundings, and ultimately, the world we live in.

Don't Make Rude Assumptions About People You Don't Know

People who jump to conclusions about people they don't know and then try to embarrass them are assholes.  It's a pet peeve of mine when others do it to me. I go out of my way not to do it to others. Sometimes I refuse to make assumptions about others to my detriment, but when I snap, and my emotions and fiery judgment take over, there is something oddly empowering about slapping labels on a person, and convincing myself I 'get them.' It's a way of feeling like we have power over people we don't understand. It's the root of bullying and it's a horrible, unfair thing to do, even to those we feel have wronged us.

When we assume we understand a strangers' boundaries, strengths, intelligence, friends, mannerisms, personalities, and life, we're being jerks. I don't care how perceptive and intuitive and smart we think we are. We need to let go of our assumptions about people we don't know very well. For me personally, this is a tough one. I let my anger get the best of me sometimes, and I make assumptions about people all the time. I'm not alone in this. A lot of people on this earth start wars over perceived slights from people they barely know.

However, some people take this even farther and go from assholes to all-out villains. Some try to psychoanalyze strangers who haven't wronged them, sometimes within minutes, and confront them on it with the sole intent of embarrassing them. This is a primary asshole characteristic. Dr. House did it in every episode of House. His writers made him a charming character, but there was no doubt that Dr. House was intended to be a jerk. Additionally, Dr. House, unlike a lot of the real life assholes who jump in guns blazing over their assessments, was often right. Real life jerks, on the other hand, are often wrong, and despite this, they soldier on.

Have Empathy

We've all had encounters with people who, for whatever reason, are either overtly aggressive or dismissive in their dealings with people at work or in social circles. Usually, this doesn't really matter that much. We either don't notice, or tune it out, or laugh it off and pretend nothing ever happened. People aren't obliged to pay attention to other people. People aren't even obliged to engage others. I ignore people all the time... it doesn't necessarily make me an asshole. However, when people make sport of others' words for fun without truly engaging them, they're assholes.

Through most of my life, I've often been shy and did not always engage people around me because whenever I did, I always felt like people used what I said as an excuse to argue with me. They either twisted my words or made fun of the way I talked, or used something I said against me without really trying to get to know me. I was always afraid of this, so I kept my mouth shut. As a consequence, though, a lot of people thought I was a jerk because I was so quiet all the time. Some people get off on sparring with strangers, especially those they don't think will fight back. In company where everyone is sort of alpha male (or alpha female), there's nothing wrong with it. But if you use empathy, it might serve you well to stop projecting, and discover the difference between someone who looks down on everyone and someone who's merely shy. Hell, even if you can't tell the difference, it's better not to assume at all.

Often, we're just desensitized to awful behavior, because we tell ourselves that we have thicker skin. "Can't stand the heat?" one asshole brags. "If you talked that way to me, I'd just point and laugh at you. Maybe you could learn something from me!" When we're jerks, we convince ourselves and others that everyone but us is being too sensitive. We never once consider that sensitivity goes both ways. We perceive ourselves as strong and stoic and then project that onto everyone else around us, heaping scorn on anyone who's weak enough to have feelings.

Don't Be a Nasty Drunk (and if you can't overcome your problem, seek help)

People who drink call it social lubrication. Alcohol, however, is the enemy of restraint and caution. With some people, this isn't a problem. But for those alcoholics who are ticking time bombs ready to go off at the slightest provocation, drinking is a virtual assembly line for asshole behavior.

Patience and prudence are vital, virtuous qualities. If alcohol strips that away from you, then it doesn't belong in your life. I don't mean to sound like a Quaker, or an old time moralist (I'm not), but carefulness, caution, and restraint are almost never bad. Alcohol, frees people to ignore these virtues, which, in the right setting can be fun as hell. However, its potential for evil is vast. There are many kinds of drinkers, and many kinds of drunks, but the aggressive drunk, the drunk who blacks out and starts poking people in the eye and saying rude things and starting fights... those people? Jerks. I've known recovering alcoholics who look back on their behavior and say: yeah, the person I became was a monstrous sociopath. I hated that person. I don't want to ever see him/her again.

One can become a jerk temporarily with alcohol or be a full time sober jerk, but alcohol nurtures injurious and insensitive behavior like is was going extinct. I've always considered myself lucky and a freak of nature, because when I drink - with the rarest of exceptions - I show uncommon restraint. Sometimes my mouth blabs a little too much, but what I say and do, even when drink, passes through my internal parsing filter before it hits the air. Not everyone has my superpower, though.

Understand the Banality of Evil

Often, we unconsciously equate mean people, jerks, assholes and their ilk with movie style villainy. Mean people, it is thought, usually hatch complex and clever plans. They wind up spring loaded traps for people to fall into. They actively seek victims and pounce on then. The two assholes above partially fell into this category, but I think the worst injuries are caused when we withdraw affection and ignore peoples' needs. We are at our most cruel when we disregard people who haven't wronged us in their vulnerable moments, and we are even worse when we justify this disregard to ourselves.

Mean behavior, contrary to what we often think, is usually passive and lazy by nature. The worst villains in books and movies are those who seem almost bored by the people they wrong. They don't care. They're blind to others' problems. They have no empathy. Their fueled by an almost supernatural self interest. This, my friends, is how I see evil, and to some extent, it's what I think makes the worst kind of jerk. Evil is self absorbed and doesn't have time to make correct judgments or avert an outburst. Evil jumps to an easy conclusion and runs with it. Easy conclusions are lighter to carry, especially when you'd not rather take the time to get to know someone.

Stop Cultivating a Nation of Assholes

It's no secret that celebrity culture lauds assholes. Jerks get people to notice. They get attention, they get tickets sold, they get clicks. If they didn't, publicity stunts by Donald Trump, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber and other famous jerks would go over like a wet fart in a crowded elevator. It's not that the media even takes a firm stand on judging these people - celebrity obsessed media is in the business of keeping peoples' attention.

Let's say you're driving down the street and you see two people on the sidewalk. If they're hugging, you notice, but if they're in a terrible fight, you really notice. Maybe you even stop out of concern. Media counts on this. Doomsday clock? Impending apocalypse? Domestic violence? Outrage? Madness? Fury? These are the things that media relies upon for your continued attention. It amounts to passive endorsement of terrible behavior. Passive endorsement of assholes is almost worse than active endorsement of them, because passive endorsement doesn't provoke a contrary response. Passive endorsement of awful behavior creeps into our collective unconscious, and through the power of cognitive dissonance, we find ourselves equating awful behavior with something that keeps us from disappearing in others' eyes.

Lonely people act out and get attention. Outrageous, unsympathetic behavior may provoke extreme response from those around you, but I will say this: it gets noticed. The rate at which information flows is getting more and more frenetic, and to keep up with that pace, people often eschew things like patience, consideration, empathy, kindness and love. You know why? Those things take time. They don't appear overnight. We cut corners to get ahead socially, to stay at the top of the news feed, to stay relevant to our friends' lists. We make less affirmative, supportive comments and find ourselves only talking to our friends when we want to stir up a debate. We manufacture conflict because it's marketing 101. But it's wrong. And the nation of assholes expands.

Being Nice is Hard

So, to sum up:

1. People equate nice with being vulnerable. They're not wrong.
2. People also equate nice with being weak. They're wrong.
3. Being nice is an active endeavor, and being mean a passive endeavor. People often don't allow themselves the time and can't summon the energy for niceness.
4. Most real assholes think they're nice and don't understand that their actions contribute to the problem. I sometimes fall into this category.
5. Celebrity culture celebrates banal and selfish behavior, making it more and more acceptable and imitable as it becomes popularized.

I don't think I have special knowledge about being nice. I don't think I'm more capable of being nice. I don't think that highly of myself. I'm prone to fits of judgment, of insecurity that leads to me treating those around me unfairly. That said, I think we can all do better.


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