Cruel to be Kind …

Miri is talking about the difference between niceness and kindness:

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

The first thing to think about when someone uses a different definition for words than everyone else because they find them more “useful” is whether or not this is, in fact, actually rationalization. Are they changing the definition so that it can make them feel better about themselves or because it lets them do things that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do? Sure, sometimes words get redefined for clarity and to help sort things out properly, but there’s always a risk that it’s not making it clearer, but instead is making it work better for you, specifically.

And Miri’s main statement of its use does not exactly fill one with confidence:

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

So, setting boundaries is important to Miri. She also has a reaction to setting boundaries being considered “selfish”, and the redefinition allows her to not consider setting boundaries as selfish behaviour. We’ll come back to the details later, but right here alarm bells should be going off suggesting that rationalization is what’s happening here.

But let’s look at the definitions:

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

These definitions are, in fact, a bit vague, odd for a post intended to talk specifically about these definitions. Let me try to clear things up — and, oddly, shorten them a bit — by grabbing what I think is the heart of the definition that she wants to use here:

Niceness is primarily concerned with how a person feels.

Kindness is primarily concerned with their well-being.

Put this way, we can see that, yes, they might come into conflict. Someone might be hurt if you tell them the truth, but in the long-term they’re better off if you do so than if you don’t. This also fits into her comments on breaking up with someone:

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested.

Unfortunately, she immediately follows that up with a comment on raising conflicts between the two based on assuming that being nice means “making them feel good” rather than “making them feel as good as reasonably possible”:

That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

But niceness doesn’t mean that every action that you take has to make them feel good, or as good as possible. Niceness is concerned with their feelings, not with them having to always feel good no matter what. Thus, there may be times when you have no real choice but to hurt their feelings in some way, but niceness says that if you have to hurt someone’s feelings you try to minimize that as much as possible. The reason that this is important is that ignoring this leads people to think that if they can’t make them feel good then they can’t be nice and so there’s no point in trying to be nice. Miri herself isn’t obviously doing that — although a lot of her situations could imply it — but many atheists have indeed argued in the whole “accommodationist/Don’t Be a Dick” fiasco that religious people are going to be upset anyway, so there’s no reason to try to avoid upsetting them. That is in fact “not nice”, and is a niceness that is, in fact, achievable.

The danger here is that trying to drop niceness becomes a way to rationalize selfishness/self-centeredness, by defining what you’re doing as really being kind — concerned with their well-being — and so not having to worry about their feelings at all, and thus dropping one of the reasons that would get in the way of you doing what you want. And her examples have a startling tendency to not think about others except when convenient:

But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

Note that here all of the considerations are from her side. She’s not ready to talk yet, but the co-worker is trying to, but since she feels it’s easier to just be polite. Here she uses this as an example of it not being authentic or meaningful, but let me recast it in a way that might suggest otherwise:

I, myself, get in to work at 5 am. Imagine that I work with Miri, and she gets in at 9 am. Imagine that both of us are generally ready for and strongly desiring conversation about 2 hours into our workday. Also imagine that by 6 hours into our workday, we aren’t really interested in conversation, and are already thinking about ending the day and going home. At 9 am, when Miri is so irritated, I’ve spent 4 hours at work and at this point would be desperate for some conversation. On the other hand, when Miri is ready to have some conversation, I’d be pretty much wiped. Now, Miri could say at 9 am that she isn’t ready for conversation, and at 11 am I could return the favour, but all this means is that neither of us get conversation when we really want. Alternatively, we could both understand this difference, suck it up, and work to give the other person what they need. This would be both nice and kind, and more importantly would be entirely authentic; my main goal is to engage in conversation with them when they need it, and I need not pretend that I need or desire it as much at that point as they do.

Contrast this with Miri’s later comments on why you might still do it:

First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

It’s all about how it impacts or could impact her. The co-worker isn’t being considerate to her — by doing things that, you must note at this point, they can’t know bother her because she didn’t tell them — but there’s no reason for her to be considerate of them, unless being considerate works out for her. As my redefinition says, being kind means being concerned for their well-being, and there’s no consideration for their actual well-being here, except as per how it can work towards or against her own well-being.

You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

Well, not usually, no. How you approach this and what the circumstances are matter. A personal trainer who is training you was indeed paid to teach you to have as proper a form as they can, and so comments on your form being improper are indeed always just part of them doing their job. And they have clear expertise and so even if you disagree you are likely to think that they are, in fact, right. For a stranger, they don’t have any of that, and so it can come across as you trying to show off how much better you are at this than they are. This, of course, can be emphasized or diminished by how you approach. If you rush over to tell them that because they are likely to injure themselves, they’re more likely to accept that than if you rush over to tell them that because if they did it your way they’d exercise four more muscles and so be more efficient. And an off-hand comment of “The trainer showed me to do this way because it was more efficient” is more likely to get a reasonable response than “You’re doing it wrong!”. Again, the example often involves being both self-centered and not worrying about the well-being of the person. If their thinking you’re rude will put you off correcting them, then they can’t be doing it all that badly, can they? Either that, or you’re willing to put the risk of them saying harsh words to you ahead of their well-being.

Let’s return to boundaries:

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

This is pure rationalization, and rationalization that allows her to avoid feeling selfish — after all, knowing her boundaries is “better” for them — and allows her to avoid having to question whether setting those boundaries is inappropriate, and whether or not she’s overstepping the bounds of boundaries. After all, it’s just information about her, information that the person needs to know in order to maintain a healthy relationship with her. How can simply saying what she needs be out of bounds? So it can’t be really selfish, and it really does in fact work for the other person’s well-being, so that they can stay in the relationship with her … or, presumably, leave if they find it unreasonable.

If these things are really something she needs, then it’s reasonable to say that this is the way it needs to be. But this entire approach shields her from ever having to ask if she in fact really needs that and if she might have to loosen up her boundaries in order to make the relationship work. This allows her to dodge the selfishness — or self-centered — objection and argue that being clear about — and sticking to, presumably — her boundaries is actually good for them, even if it forces them to allow Miri to push their boundaries, or at least guilt them into accepting what they feel are unacceptable boundaries in order to maintain a relationship that is arguably at this point more important to them than it is to her.

This attitude carries through the end of the post:

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.

But as I pointed out above, niceness should entail making them feel as good as possible, which includes making them feel less bad. Presumably, Miri is going to pick the gentlest way possible to “hold them accountable”, which is a rather odd thing to suggest doing to one’s patients. Shouldn’t you, instead, simply try to fix the problems that cause that behaviour? At any rate, Miri is more than willing to make people feel good when it makes her feel good, not when they need to feel good … except for those people who deserve neither. For some reason, we know not what.

It is always possible to be both kind and nice to people, because both are fundamentally concerned with caring about other people and thus it is always possible to do what is best for others taking both feelings and overall well-being into account. Sure, you have to consider yourself in that calculation as well, but nice and kind people don’t have to be doormats either. All that is required is that you consider your needs and the needs of others and proceed in a way that ensures your needs and desires in the way that also maximizes their needs, desires and feelings. If you have to hurt someone’s feelings, do so in the way that hurts them the least. If you need to put your well-being ahead of someone else’s, do so in a way that hampers their well-being the least. This does not seem difficult … or, at least, it doesn’t seem that difficult when your main goal is everyone and not just justifying your own desires.


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