Friday, 25 November 2011

Forbidden Word: Nice

I loved Mrs P when I was 9-10 years old. She was one of the most engaging and creative teachers I had at school. Things she said stayed with me.


Mrs P  forbade the reading (in and out of school) of a well-known children's author Enid Blyton. She gave 2 reasons: her pupils were far too intelligent to waste time with such simplistic drivel; Enid Blyton only ever used one adjective and this was 'nice'. 


'Nice' was a word Mrs P. would not allow her pupils to use. She considered this lazy because, as she told us, her pupils were capable of finding adjectives that more precisely and creatively said what we meant. I can only imagine how she might have responded to the American phrase, 'have a nice day' - she would have challenged this this with some edgy questions.


We couldn't say 'nice' at school. At the same time there was a clearly understood code of conduct that we "gels" were expected to "be nice". Not that the forbidden word 'nice' was ever said. What was expected was courtesy, kindness, consideration and respect for others and so on. Nothing wrong with that - the world needs more of those qualities. But there is a 'but'. Problems arise when the need to "be nice" overcomes the imperative for truth to be spoken, bullies challenged, hard questions to be asked of people in power.


Some years ago a journalist published her research about what the Church of England was like, based on visits to churches and personal interviews. (I've forgotten who this was. Perhaps someone can remind me.) She decided that a distinguishing characteristic of the Church of England was its "niceness". I think she found this slightly endearing, but - what a condemnation. How has it happened that so many people think that to be a Christian is the same as being "a nice person"? 


Thanks to Stuart James' of eChurch Blog for directing me to Elizabeth Scalia's post The Shushing Tyranny of "Be Nice"! She has insightful comments on the question 'Does Christianity demand niceness?' Here's a snippet:

Jesus, it seemed, preferred someone who would speak a slightly edgy truth over someone who would be “nice,” but dishonest. Being himself All Truth, dishonesty in the guise of niceness could not serve him. 
In fact, Jesus said many things that probably make our modern niceniks squirm in the pews: “Let the dead bury the dead!” (But Jesus, how dismissive!); “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. . .” (You’re so divisive!); “Shake the dust from your feet as a testimony against them!” (Hater!); “Get thee behind me, Satan,” (Jesus! Peter was just trying to be nice!).

Image (Creative Commons): 'Have a Nice Day' by Leo Reynolds

6 comments:

  1. I deplore the word nice, not only is it a lazy word to use but also is insipid in itself. Not to mention that when I hear it being used my toes curl and I have to bite back the urge to question the user as to whether what they really meant to say was they didn't like whatever but were too polite to say as much.

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  2. revk - you are someone after my own heart. Do you ever get 'nice sermon/service Vicar'? I think 'nice' has become insipid and people use it to mean whatever they want it to mean and the problem is you don't know what they mean. It's come a long way from one of its earlier meanings where a 'nice fit' means an exact precise fit.
    Ray Barnes - well I have to ask you what you mean by 'nice one'. You could mean you like the post or if you're using the original meaning of 'nice' you could be saying it's a stupid, foolish post. What I really hope you don't mean is that it is 'pretty'.

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  3. Well, it's an all-purpose word Nancy. You decide.

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  4. "Courtesy, kindness, consideration and respect for others and so on. Nothing wrong with that - the world needs more of those qualities. But there is a 'but'. Problems arise when the need to "be nice" overcomes the imperative for truth to be spoken, bullies challenged, hard questions to be asked of people in power."
    Yes, I observed this in action last year in the church i was then attending. The PCC circulated a letter deploring the Rector's actions. What his supporters most deplored about the letter and the signatories was that we weren't being nice. But, as you say, for bullies to be challenged, and hard questions to be asked, one has to jettison niceness.

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  5. Anita - learning to "speak the truth in love" is difficult. I've certainly got this wrong many times - either speaking it at the wrong time and in the wrong way or to the wrong person, or avoiding the issue. I don't think I was saying that for bullies to be challenged "one has to jettison niceness". I think it's always right to be courteous etc. But it is not kind to pretend everything is OK if it isn't or to grumble behind someone's back instead of taking up the issue with the person concerned.

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