The good listener knows we benefit hugely from encouragement to elaborate, to go into greater detail, to push a little further. We need someone who, rather than launch forth, will simply say two rare magic words: ‘Go on…’
Those who are nice in an attentive way are driven by a desire to properly understand people, to dig a little deeper and know people better. They hover as the other speaks; they offer remarks of support; they make gentle, positive gestures: a sigh of sympathy, a nod of encouragement, a strategic ‘hmm’ of interest. All so that we, the speaker, can feel welcomed and understood.
There are rare individuals in life who seem able to take most of what we are for granted from the first – and whom we gratefully honour with the term ‘open-minded’. Without particular surprise or fuss, they assume from the first that being human is a messy and impure business and that any person they come across is likely to contain a host of less than ideal dimensions and at points be really quite close to madness.
Being nice in an open-minded way means reserving judgment and remaining unafraid of what is inside the human soul. It is motivated by a desire to see the good in people, no matter the circumstances in which we might find it.
However much they love the truth, good people have an even greater commitment to something else: being kind towards others. They grasp (and make allowances for) the ease with which a truth can produce unhelpful convictions in the minds of others and are therefore not overcommitted to accuracy at every turn.
Being nice in a polite way is motivated by a desire to protect other people’s feelings. It understands that wanting the best for others sometimes requires us to protect them with politeness; choosing our words carefully so as not to disturb them or cause unnecessary concern.
The warm person may not hold to an explicit theory of what they are doing, but at root their conduct is based on an understanding that however solid and dignified someone appears on the outside, behind the scenes there will inevitably be a struggling self, potentially awkward, easily bemused, beset by physical appetites, on the verge of loneliness – and frequently in need of nothing more subtle or elevated than a small compliment.
Being nice in a warm way means that you are deeply desirous for others to feel accepted – appreciated and valued no matter their flaws or peculiarities.
Shyness is rooted in reserve and quietness, but it has insightful dimensions as well. It is infused with an awareness that we might be bothering someone with our presence; it is based on an acute sense that a stranger could be dissatisfied or discomfited by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance.
Being shy often says that you don’t wish to bother anyone. You are concerned for the comfort of others and, as such, prefer to stay out of things rather than taking the risk of making yourself unwelcome.
To read more the subject of this undervalued quality, take a look at our book from The School of Life Press, On Being Nice
Most books that want to change us seek to make us richer or thinner. This book wants to help us to be nicer, that is: less irritable, more patient, readier to listen, warmer, less prickly… This is a guidebook to the uncharted landscape of Niceness, gently leading us around the key themes of this forgotten quality. We learn how to be charitable, how to forgive, how to be natural and how to reassure. We learn that niceness is compatible with strength and is no indicator of naivety. Niceness deserves to be rediscovered as one of the highest of all human achievements.