Why Bother Being Nice? – The Cut

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Recently, the internet blew up in response to a tweet comparing West Coast “niceness” and East Coast “kindness.” What does it mean to be nice? What does it mean to be kind? Do you have to be one to be the other? This week, The Cut host Avery Trufelman speaks to the tweet’s author, Jordan Green, as well as Nicest Person in the World Jonathan Van Ness and Scaachi Koul, self-described “asshole,” about the act of “being nice.”

To hear more about cultivating kindness and wielding niceness as a tool, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.

AVERY: I had this one fleeting moment when I realized I might be too Californian for New York. I was in the elevator of a midtown skyscraper, and someone else stepped in the elevator after me, and I just knee-jerk impulsively asked, “What floor are you going to?” To which this New Yorker gave me a side glance, reached past me like I wasn’t there, and pressed the button herself.

I lived in California for the last seven years. And now, as the prodigal son returning back home to New York, I am shocked to realize that I have become … so nice.

I used to be so annoyed by people like me. People who make conversations on airplanes. People who always want to lead with the good news and chime in with positive reinforcement. And, my God, now I’ve become one. I cannot count how many times my New York colleagues have told me to please stop profusely thanking everyone and stop apologizing to everyone. And now I can’t seem to revert back to my old gruff New York self that I once was.

And then this tweet hit the nail right on the head.

AVERY: That tweet, from the handle @jordonaut, has been retweeted over 30,000 times.

JORDAN: Yeah, my name’s Jordan Green, I wrote a tweet on my coffee break that went super-viral. 

AVERY: Jordan is a UX designer based in Seattle.

JORDAN: Culturally, on the West Coast, niceness is prized more than kindness — how you appear, saving face essentially — whereas on the East Coast there’s like the heart-of-gold trope where, there, a person is, like, really mean and gruff — they’re just a rough hard-driving son of a gun, but she gave that man a dollar when he really needed it most. 

AVERY: So, for a super-low-stakes example, if you see someone who stubbed their toe, the nice but not kind response is—

JORDAN: “Oh I see you stubbed your toe. I can imagine that really hurts”

JORDAN: “You’re an idiot for, like, walking around without your shoes on — here are your shoes. And here is an ice pack” It’s about the delivery. That’s what niceness is. Kindness is actually addressing the need.

AVERY: As Jordan tweeted, West Coast liberals/radicals are really good at *sounding* nice. But I’ve seen organizers & activists from other places get frustrated because nothing happens after A LOT of talk.”

JORDAN: They’ll use all of the proper terminology, all of the proper language, and then at the end of the day, they won’t help. That’s kind of why I made the tweet. Because I used to believe that saying nice things helped. And that does help. But it doesn’t help enough. Niceness is super important because manners are a social lubricant, right? My grandmother is from the South. She is a Black woman from the South. She taught me to always say please and thank you. Anyone that’s a person, a darker-skinned person of color, in a particular context, they need to be nice. And it does come from a place of safety, right? It comes from trying to navigate a world that’s actively trying to kill you. Once you have compassion for yourself, the kindest thing you could give to yourself is the permission to not be nice! You don’t have to be nice!

AVERY: There is so much baggage around niceness. You don’t have to be nice; and yet you do have to be nice. It’s cultural, it’s political. It’s gendered, it’s racialized. Like, Do I have to be nice to a catcaller telling me to smile? No. But, also, it might be unsafe not to. No matter who you are, someone is always trying to tell you to be nicer or be less nice. Like, I was definitely told to not be nice when Lean In came out and girlbosses were having a moment. As though, being nice is at odds with being honest or productive or authentic or efficient. Or kind. And so I wanted to talk with someone who has taken niceness all the way to success. Someone spectacularly, unabashedly nice.

JONATHAN: I mean I think there’s a part of me that’s just authentically nice. I do, annoyingly, wake up very early and in a particularly good mood. I don’t know what that’s about. 

AVERY: That’s Jonathan Van Ness! Hairdresser, yoga instructor, star of Queer Eye on Netflix, and host of the podcast Getting Curious. We all love Jonathan.

Okay, a huge part of your brand to me is that you are very nice. And how do you feel about that word when I use it to describe you?

JONATHAN: I mean, nice is great. I do feel like I am nice. I feel like maybe the only thing that’s more of a bummer about it is if you’re not feeling really nice when you meet somebody and you disappoint them because, like, your cat’s sick or you’re late or whatever. I am literally that nice, I feel, like 80 to 85 percent of the time.

AVERY: I mean, no one, not even Jonathan Van Ness, can be nice 100 percent of the time. Not on this internet.

JONATHAN: The hardest thing for me is just seeing dehumanizing, cruel stuff written about me on Twitter. Or really cruel articles. That stuff hurts. 

AVERY: I feel like the internet has gotten meaner. Do you feel like the world has gotten meaner?

JONATHAN: Yeah. I do.

AVERY: When did that happen?

JONATHAN: I don’t know. But you know what this guy told me in rehab once? He said, “Not knowing why I was an alcoholic is not what made me crazy. Needing to know why I was an alcoholic is what made me crazy.” So it’s like, people have always been mean; they have always been cruel. Isolation, no isolation, post-pandemic, pre-pandemic, pre-Facebook, post-Facebook — it’s always been around. None of this is original. 

AVERY: This sounds weird, but do you have any tips?

JONATHAN: Grow up in a city where people call you f—– and chase you around with pitchforks your whole life and then get addicted to drugs and survive a lot of abuse and crash and burn lots of times and then move to Los Angeles, where you get more rejection and abuse while navigating the HIV social-safety net while recovering from drugs. That’s how I did it. So … extreme discomfort. I spent a lot of my life in extreme discomfort and suffered a lot of abuse and a lot of neglect and a lot of bullying in a lot of different ways. And that was as someone who also had a lot of other privileges and social capital. I had a roof over my head, and I had food to eat, and I still went through that shit. So I don’t know. What are my tips? Go to therapy. It works. Find the therapy that works for you. Find, like, a yoga that works for you.

AVERY: Yes. Yoga and therapy. We love ’em! And they got me through the year. But I still feel like these are tools that are helping me just barely scrape by. And I haven’t lived in the extreme discomfort Jonathan has. And I don’t have the extra pressure to be nice all the time that Jonathan has. Like, if Jonathan agrees to take a selfie with a fan, suddenly a line will form. And it will be hard to stop. And it’s hard to disappoint people by saying no. Even though Jonathan’s tried.

JONATHAN: Maybe sometimes you just need to say no. But then once I’ve said no to a thing here or there — I’m talking more selfies, fleeting things — that shit would stick with me for weeks. I wish I could go back and find the person to take a fuckin’ picture and let them know how much I appreciate them!

AVERY: Okay, at that point in our conversation, it just seemed like keeping up niceness was only a way to disappoint others and disrespect yourself. That once you start trying to be nice, you’re forever beholden to the tyranny of your own niceness. But that wasn’t exactly it.

JONATHAN: Really that part in me that was asking for the boundaries? That actually was just feeling I didn’t have time for myself. I didn’t have any of my own personal space or autonomy, and as a survivor of sexual abuse, that’s really important to me. But then I realized later I just needed to adjust how I treat myself when I’m not out in the world.

AVERY: This is what Jonathan has learned to do to stay nice. And yoga and therapy is part of this, but really it’s this mental shift.

JONATHAN: I feel like the more resentful, not-as-nice side comes out when I’ve been people-pleasing too much and saying “yes” and “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” And I wasn’t taking time for myself, and I wasn’t able to do what I was actually passionate about. And so then sometimes the energy can come out sideways and frustrated or irritated or not-nice

AVERY: And Jonathan found they could circumvent the not-nice feeling if they literally put themself first. Which is why Jonathan does exactly what they want. The very first thing in the morning.

JONATHAN: If I have a work Zoom at eight, I get up at five so I can make coffee and needlepoint and, like, look at my cats.

AVERY: Which is so not how I wake up. I hit snooze a bunch of times and then heave myself up to reluctantly take my vitamins and try to work out and start emails. But Jonathan starts with one of their passions, from needlepoint to ice skating to advocacy work to gymnastics to comedy writing.

JONATHAN: I’ve always been able to figure out a way to fit it all in if I prioritize what I’m most excited about first thing in the morning. Then I can leave the other stuff until later in the day. And so me being passionate and enjoying what I do might come across as nice sometimes because I’m in a good mood. I’m fun to be around. I’m into what I’m doing. If someone doesn’t want to take me seriously, but they’re actually in my orbit, they will soon. I just don’t have to worry about how someone is going to judge me for my demeanor. People have been judging me for my demeanor since I can remember.

AVERY: Too often niceness gets set up as this zero-sum equation. That niceness comes at a cost. That if you are nice to someone or give someone else your time, you’re subtracting it from yourself. Last week, I was waiting to meet a friend who was running very late. And I thought, Maybe I should try to be late more often. Just to reclaim my time and respect for myself. And then I thought of Jonathan. And I was like, No. I shouldn’t try to not be nice. Because it’s not a zero-sum game. Niceness is more like a yeast that can be fed in order to grow and multiply. It has nothing to do with being a doormat or not making space for yourself.

JONATHAN: You know I am nice! You can be nice and also be assertive and set your boundaries and not take no shit!

AVERY: But if you’re not Jonathan Van Ness, if you don’t naturally wake up at 5 a.m. in a pretty good mood … is it worth the effort of all the work you need to do to be nice? Depending on who you are, niceness might be a pattern of behavior learned to save your life, or hide from your power, or assuage your guilt. It might be a time suck, it might be an energy suck and, at best, an expendable accessory. So why not, in the name of collective liberation, shake it off?

AVERY: In the very extreme case study of Jonathan Van Ness, cultivating niceness is a lot of work, and a lot of effort, and it came from painful experiences. And it’s not without some guilt. So what’s it like to just throw niceness to the wind?

SCAACHI: I recognize that I am probably the other end of a spectrum. So, if lovely Jonathan is one end, then I’m probably the other. 

AVERY: This is Scaachi Koul.

SCAACHI: Yeah, I mean, I’m, well, I’m an asshole. Yeah.

AVERY: Scaachi Koul is an author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. And she’s also a culture writer for Buzzfeed News.

SCAACHI: Five years ago, when I started there, it said in the employee handbook that they had a “no haters” policy. And I remember laughing, and I went to my boss at the time and I was like, “Should I leave?”  

AVERY: Which is interesting because Scaachi, kind of like Jonathan, also grew up as an outsider in a notoriously nice place. Jonathan is from the Midwest. Scaachi is from Canada.

SCAACHI: Jonathan develops this as a defense mechanism. It’s effective for them, and it is helpful and I really admire it. It didn’t work for me. When I was nice, I didn’t get anything from it. People did not treat me better. My life was not improved. I did not receive kindness in turn. It was a waste of my time. I find the indiscriminate-niceness-industrial-complex very frustrating. It makes me crazy. Who is this for? I don’t feel that good about it. I don’t think anyone else does either.

AVERY: Okay, wait, wait, wait. Everything you’re saying flies absolutely in the face of being Canadian.

SCAACHI: Listen, this is the other thing: Canadians are some of the most brutal people in the world, and I’ll tell you why. In Canada, the rule of law is passive aggression. So if you accidentally shove somebody, you bump into them on the subway or whatever, and you don’t say, “I’m sorry,” that person will turn around and look at you like you ate their dog. There’s an expectation of a very high level of surface politeness. That behavior gets weaponized against certain people. I know it’s been weaponized against me. If you’re not nice, that means there’s something wrong with you. As a human woman who also isn’t white, sometimes I’m in places where I can’t be nice. I don’t have the luxury, I don’t have the time, and I really don’t have the patience. And so it’s just not something I’ve ever invested in. I was also raised by mean people. My parents were jerks. My brother’s a jerk. We’re kind of a jerky family. We’re Kashmiris, which is a specific kind of brown, difficult person. Trust me, you talk to any Kashmiri, they’re all like this. We’re kind of depressive, we’re real sour. There’s not a lot of us left either, so we’ve got to bind together and be mad. 

AVERY: I mean, Saachi is mad. But I think that’s different than being mean. She calls herself an asshole, but just because she doesn’t suffer fools gladly with niceness, it doesn’t make her cruel or anything. Not at all.

SCAACHI: Of course, it has consequences. I think my Wikipedia has a controversy section. But who’s the blowback from, and do I care? Sometimes I don’t. I’ll write things about people and then emails that are like, “That’s a little harsh. Isn’t that kind of mean?” I need to be nice to Joe Biden?! I don’t hear the argument of “you should be nice” more than from people who are comfortable. No one’s saying to the cops, “Could you please be nicer?” I’ve yet to hear that. It’s always to protesters. It’s always to activists. It’s always to creatives. It’s always to writers. It’s always to people who are pointing out or trying to do something about things that are systemic and wrong. Like, Let me let me be nice about trans rights. Let me find a way to do it nicely. What the fuck does that mean?!

AVERY: It could look like what Jonathan Van Ness did in 2019. They made a big trip to Washington, D.C., and there are these great photos of Jonathan joyfully walking through the halls of the Capitol in a flowy skirt, grinning, arm-in-arm with Nancy Pelosi. And on the surface, I really thought Jonathan was trying to nice their way into political advocacy. When actually, Jonathan was using the cache of their niceness to flip expectations — at least, with the Speaker of the House.

JONATHAN: In that case, I asked for five minutes alone with her, and we had a major conversation on the speaker’s balcony about PrEP access and racial equality and why we need more access for antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV. We had a very candid conversation, and I think she was very much like, I thought you were talking to me about something else. It got very serious, very fast. Sometimes I get my little Erin Brockovich disease and I just want to fuckin’ tell somebody something! That might not be related to them. It’s a matter of integrity. That’s when it’s worth it to be unpleasant.

AVERY: Niceness is more than a social lubricant. Handled correctly, it can be a powerful tool. Rather than being a way to avoid hard truths or sidestep them, niceness can be a scalpel to delve right into them, a way of giving and truly receiving honest feedback. To anyone, not just Nancy Pelosi.

JONATHAN: One thing I’ve learned from not only doing hair but from years of therapy is to ask for what you need up front so that you’re not resentful about it.

AVERY: Asking for what you need up front — from yourself, at the start of your day, from others, in moments of conflict. And actually, Jonathan has a really practical example from their hairdressing days.

JONATHAN: I can count on one finger how many times I made someone cry from a haircut.

AVERY: This was one of those times.

JONATHAN: It was one of my favorite clients who I love so much, and she’s really sweet. And she came in this one Saturday morning at eight and I had had a night the night before. And so I wasn’t feeling like my brightest 8 a.m. Saturday self that I normally would and I was like, “Okay, Tina”— her name was Tina—“put your head down,” and she looked down. I don’t think I realized how low the chair was, so when I made that first snippy-snip, I was like “Oh fuck.” It was so short. She felt it and she was like, “That’s, like, the shortest bob you’ve ever given me.”

I said, “Okay, here’s the deal. If you really get weird right now and really get upset about how much shorter this is gonna be, you’re going to end up with a Kate Gosselin. It’s going to be really bad. But I can make it good. I just need you to be cool, and I’ll be cool.” And I do remember saying, “Look, I’m so sorry, but I need us to ratchet down our nervous systems right now so that this can be cute.” It was really just saying, “Lead with relief.” My therapist also says that a lot, to “lead with relief,” then ask what you need up front. And we ended up okay, and her hair cut really was adorable, and she loved it. Actually, not even adorable. It was very sexy, very gorg, very, like, ‘Don’t fuck with me, boys,’ which is kind of what she needed in that moment. And she came back and maintained that haircut for the first time in our six-year relationship because she really loved it!

AVERY: So Jonathan and Scaatchi both believe in honesty. It’s just that one is dedicated to niceness and the other isn’t. But it’s not like one way of being is easier than the other. In truth, being nice or not nice takes the same amount of energy. Either way, if you give a shit about other people at all, it’s gonna weigh on you.

SCAACHI: I don’t know any of those people who are like, “I’m a jerk and I don’t care!” I think those people are liars! You go to bed at night and you’re like, Okay, time to think about every interaction I’ve ever had and what it means and whether I will have to apologize for anything. Of course I do that!

AVERY: So even though Scaachi and Jonathan are on different ends of the spectrum, the spectrum curves.

SCAACHI: I think it is probably a little bit of, like, horseshoe theory: that Jonathan’s here and then the horseshoe goes around and then I’m here. So we’re actually not that far from each other on those two ends of this weird arch. But it depends on what kind of personality type you have.

AVERY: Nice is great if it works for you. By all means, use it. I don’t think there’s any merit in requesting that someone be nicer or less nice than they are. But maybe niceness just isn’t the thing to fixate on.

SCAACHI: There are so many better words than be nice and don’t be mean and don’t hate. Compassion would be a good one. Generosity would be a good one. Greater good.

AVERY: If you do want to be nice, you might as well just do it in the most effective way possible, as a means to an end and not an end itself. Not as an excuse, not as a crutch, but as a way to ultimately get to what is kind.