Alivox on Niceness

I currently live half the year in Seattle, where the summers are very nice. The people here are always very nice, winter or summer, and it's nice to live somewhere so nice, where everybody's always so nice, and even the weather is nice half the year. I live in a nice house on a nice street, and I have to admit my life here is very nice. So why do I feel like I'm trapped in junior high?

I've lived in a number of other cities, but until I moved here I never really understood what "nice " meant. Seattlites have elevated niceness to an artform - nay, to the entire basis of civil society. That's nice for them, but what have they given up in exchange? That question will be the topic of this essay.

Seattle is not unique in this distinction, and in fact the vast hinterland of the USA from the George Washington Bridge to the Oakland Bay Bridge is all very nice. Incidentally, that's the same part of the country where Miracle Whip outsells mayonnaise ten to one. Coincidence? I wonder.

But Seattle has to be the world capital of niceness, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are all cloudy till May. So here's a postcard from the new frontier, land of Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Ichiro, Kurt Cobain and nice ness. We're gonna call the film version "Deepless in Seattle".

I'm originally from New York, although I've lived in numerous other places around the world. We New Yorkers are called many things - some even complimentary - but rarely is nice among them. Of course there are lots of nice people in New York, and most people everywhere are nice some of the time, but because New York is so diverse and so dense, niceness is not the dominant social form.

So what is the opposite of niceness? It's not rudeness or nastiness - those take too much effort. Niceness is fundamentally a concern for the feelings of others, including how they perceive us, so the opposite is simply a lack of concern. I've decided to use the word brusque for this lack of concern; it's a fine word we don't hear too often, and it sounds halfway between bluff "good-naturedly abrupt or frank" and gruff "rough; surly" or blunt "abrupt in address or manner" [all quotes are Webster's].

But all these definitions focus too much on the superficial, while I want to discuss the deep reflexes of these two contrasting styles. Niceness and brusqueness are much more than conversational gambits; they reflect fundamental differences in how we approach life. I didn't understand that when I first moved to Seattle many years ago, and in fact because the natives speak English, eat with their fork in the right hand, watch baseball, and share many other aspects of my culture, it took me a long time to understand how different they are, and they still don't understand how different I am. Without that appreciation, communication is almost impossible.

So I present the following as a guide for brusque people moving to Seattle or other nice places, and for nice people who want some perspective on those rude newcomers. And maybe both groups of us can learn something about ourselves in the process.

Lesson 1: Silence means "no", and so does "yes"

Let's say you're throwing a party, and you invite some nice people you know. Of course, they're delighted to be invited, and they assure you they'll be there. But they never show up, never call, and never apologize or otherwise refer to it afterwards. Brusque people might be puzzled by this behavior, especially after it happens repeatedly with many people. What's going on?

Here's the explanation: nice people wouldn't want to disappoint you when you invite them by telling you that they can't come, so they say yes - after all, they are genuinely pleased to be invited. This yes has nothing at all to do with the question of whether they intend to come - it's a polite yes. They may or may not want to come, or they may genuinely not know, but in any case they're going to say yes to the invitation - to do otherwise would be rude.

This principle goes much deeper than party invitations, and it's just as much a stumbling block in nice/brusque interactions as the word hai is between Japanese and Americans. Since nice people don't allow themselves to express negative emotions or be the bearer of bad news, silence plays those roles . Here are some true-story examples:

But the real price of this arrangement is paid by the Seattlites themselves, who have no mechanism at their disposal to rectify any of the small hitches that inevitably come up in every situation. They live in a world in which the first hiccup means death to a relationship, a job, or any other endeavor, and consequently they lead very shallow lives, afraid to reveal their flaws and dissatisfactions, and in fact blaming themselves. Denial is their oxygen.

Lesson 2: Communication is about intent, not content

You know that famous Far Side cartoon where the first panel shows a man scolding his dog, Ginger, and the second panel shows that the dog hears only its name? That's sometimes what Seattle is like.

As I'll discuss below, critical thinking is completely absent in Seattle, and of course so is criticism itself. You even have to be very careful about complaining about life's small hassles, like traffic. Seattle has terrible traffic problems, about as bad as Los Angeles with a fifth of the population, and they resolutely vote down any attempts to address the issue. But if an outsider like me makes a negative comment about the traffic, well, he's criticizing us! Who does he think he is, anyway? Why doesn't he go back where he came from, if he doesn't like it here?

Lesson 3: The nail that stands up, gets hammered

You may think that striving to be better is a universal trait, despite the tremendous variety in what people consider "better" to mean. In fact, the assumption that other people are motivated to advance their interests and improve their circumstances is deeply embedded in most interaction.

Surprisingly, this assumption often seems to be violated in Seattle. People not only often seem to make life choices that clearly worsen their situation, but they also reveal that they consider any ambition or effort to be an insult to everyone else. If you want to be better than you are, you're implying that there's something wrong with being like everyone else.

Lesson 4: Paying attention is a burden

Sometimes, it's great to relax: to kick back with a beer, put on some music, and not have to think about anything. But it can also be great to do something, especially something active that engages your mind and body. The trick is to find the right balance between those two extremes.

We all know that if you don't exercise your body, you'll get out of shape - use it or lose it. That's true of lots of other things, too: speaking a foreign language, swimming, dancing, integral calculus ... even sex! I find that, contrary to popular myth, if I don't get laid for a while, I completely forget about sex until a fun night reminds me.

Well, attention - our ability to pay attention - works the same way. If you pay attention to lots of things all day long, it gets easier and easier, while if you only fire up the old noggin once or twice a day, it takes some effort. To people who don't understand this - like Seattlites - it may seem that "having" to pay attention ALL DAY LONG - like New Yorkers - is a stressful ordeal for Type A workaholics, just like having to socialize with other people, like at a party.

So imagine that you're waiting to make a left turn at a four way intersection, and a car is coming from your left: he has priority, so you wait for him to pass. But he ends up turning right, and if he had signalled that, you could also have made your turn and been on your way. Why didn't he? He wasn't paying attention, and after all, why should he signal?

And yet if you gave the citizens of Seattle a multiple-choice test asking whether people should illuminate their right turn signals before making a right turn, I'm sure Seattle would score among the highest cities in the country: they know the right answer and they're eager to please when the spotlight is on them.

They just don't like paying attention.

Lesson 5: Critical thinking is negative

Seattle has one of the worst baseball teams in the Majors, despite a high payroll and a beautiful new stadium. They achieve losing seasons twice as often as winning ones, and are the only AL team never to have won the pennant. One problem is that their fans continue to support them, loyally, no matter how bad they are. After all, they're OUR team.

Seattle is not the only city like that, and loyalty isn't the worst flaw. But unflinching support is not healthy for anyone, especially if it sustains maladaptive behavior.

There may be some of you who see nothing wrong with the behavior I'm decrying. In fact, you may think it's me it sounds like there's something wrong with.

You're as correct as I am, in your culture, and I bet you're very nice, too.

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