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A philosophical question for the weekend (yeah, I hear you shuddering. But I like thinking on the weekends!)

The other day I listened to a This American Life episode on The Allure of the Mean Friend. It included the following question:

"Does Niceness Pay? In which we conduct a little scientific experiment – on tape – with hidden microphones - about whether niceness pays. We wire two waitresses with hidden microphones. They're superfriendly to half their tables; and aloof to the other half. They examine their tips to see which generates more profits."

...The experiment has inconclusive results. On one day, aloofness paid; on the other, both aloofness and niceness come out the same. Their conclusion wasn't terribly useful at proving or disproving the hypothesis.

So, I'd like to know: is there truth to aloofness or meanness paying? I know that to a point, assertiveness pays. And I've occasionally watched friends get taken advantage of by being too nice. (I know I've gotten stomped on for being too nice).

I want to differentiate between "meanness" and "assertiveness". I think there isn't a single continuum:

(<---- mean ---- assertive --- passive ---- nice ---- >).

Thinking about it now, I prefer two sets, mean/nice, assertive/passive. I think you can be extremely nice, and still be assertive; though I'm not totally sure what that looks like all the time. But I do try to vary my own behaviour on the assertiveness/passiveness continuum while still staying at the nice end of the mean/nice continuum. But is it possible to be "very nice" while still being assertive?

The best overall strategy I've seen (for myself, and for others) involves being as nice and helpful as possible, except when prevented by self-interest... But there are arguments against flat-out niceness:

Morally, people sometimes need to be told things they don't want to hear. melted_snowball and I have talked fairly often about Quakers and an idea proposed by a mutual friend who says Quakers often have "a false testimony of niceness." That can take the form of not pushing an issue in order to preserve "peace". Also, being too nice can be a form of lying, trying to save somebody from a hard truth. It's a form of paternalism, and also laziness, and probably also fear.

It seems to me that being as-nice-as-possible implies valuing everyone else's time and opinions over your own. With no chance of being assertive at the same time.

The episode of TAL mentions how people are attracted to mean people; how, despite ourselves, we want to be manipulated, at least a little bit. I haven't thought it through all the way, but it seems that mean is less boring than nice; and we'd generally rather have interesting, than 100% nice.

So: is meanness a good interpersonal strategy?


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 19th, 2006 11:41 pm (UTC)
One factor I consider in such things is how being mean makes me feel--generally, it makes me feel bad. Even when it is effective in accomplishing goal X, it might make me feel guilty or just associate negative things with goal X.

The fundamental question of whether someone needs to hear the truth is a big part of this. The example from a previous conversation was I have a friend who is a scientologist, who gives a ton of money to them. I think scientology is bunk. Do I say something to them? Is that mean?

On the other hand, is it nice to let someone walk off of a cliff because you don't want to imply that they don't know where they're walking?

Clearly it is nice to tell someone about a big mistake they are making. Just as clearly, there are nicer and meaner ways to do that.

I don't think being nice or mean has to do with how you value other people's time or opinions. It means considering how what you're doing is affecting them and weighing that into your decision about how to act. In other words, I think it's about valuing other people's feelings as highly as your own.

I can need you to do something for me and be very assertive, but so long as I am mindful of how my request and the way I make it will make you feel, I can be nice about it.
May. 20th, 2006 12:16 am (UTC)
My short and unhelpful answer is: I think it depends on what you mean by "nice" and "mean", and I think it depends on what part of the universe you live in.

With regard to the issue of niceness vs truth, it seems to me that that's more about approaching niceness in a short-sighted fashion. Miss Manners identifies it well when she addresses the issue of dating and rejection: often, people feel will at a loss for how to tell someone that, no, they're not interested, because they don't want the person to feel rejectec. But, Miss Manners counters, actually, rejected is exactly how you want them to feel, because the alternative is for them to think they've got a chance with you and to keep trying. Stringing somebody along is far crueller than disappointing them up-front.

I agree that nice/mean and passive/assertive are generally orthogonal to one another, and I see no problem in being both nice and assertive. "Nice", I think, isn't so much about putting other people's needs before your own, but in recognizing that other people's needs are as valid as your own, modulo context.

With regard to the "where you live" aspect, it all depends on what the people around you are like. Meanness is probably a lousy default policy unless the large majority of people you interact with are also mean, in which case it's defensive.

In some sense, it's all iterated prisoner's dilemma, after all, and the Axelrod tourney shows that the best strategy is tit-for-tat, defaulting to nice. The only thing that beats tit-for-tat is elaborations on it that allow for error and can infer the other player's strategy. We have a much more complicated payoff matrix, of course, but what it comes down to is that in most environments, in the long run, being nice will get you further than being a bastard will.
May. 20th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)

I think I operate on something like these definitions:
* "Mean"-"nice" is about whether behavior hurts people (mean does, nice doesn't)
* "Assertive" -"Passive" is about whether behavior gets me what I want (assertive does, passive doesn't)

I don't claim those definitions apply generally, they just seem to be what I mean when I classify behaviors this way. (I also have a meaning of "nice" that roughly maps to "civil, pleasant, friendly, mannerly" but it's a different use. As is the one that means "unnecessarily precise," as I'm being now.)

It follows that "assertive" and "nice" are opposed only if something I want _cannot_ be achieved without someone being hurt. (There are other dimensions as well, and they interact, but I'm taking a single slice for the moment.)

I _think_ the problems emerge, not from difficulties with "nice", "mean", "assertive" or "passive", but with confusion about "hurt." More specifically, I suspect the problem lies with an insidious assertion of the form "It hurts people to not get what they want."

If I buy into that assertion, then things get messy. In a situation where resources are constrained and we can't both get everything we want, then in order to get everything I want (maximally assertive) I have to hurt you (be mean). I cannot be both maximally assertive and maximally nice.

But of course, that assertion is false. People want all kinds of things that it doesn't actually hurt them not to have.

One of those things is my time and energy. So if I buy into that false assertion, the desire to be non-mean interferes with my ability to refuse people's requests for my time and energy. If I reject that assertion, I can actually look at the situation and decide whether rejecting that request hurts the person or not, on other grounds. (Eg, if a starving person wants some of my money to buy food, that's one thing. If my neighbor wants some of my time so he doesn't have to pick up his own son at the airport, that's a different thing.)

One of those things is to be comfortable in their own view of the world.
One of those things is to control the independent behavior of others.
And so on and so forth.

So if I buy into that assertion, then as you say, "being as-nice-as-possible implies valuing everyone else's time and opinions over your own. With no chance of being assertive at the same time."

Now, of course, if I reject that assertion, nothing stops me from volunteering these things. But now we've moved away from "mean"/"nice" and onto "generous"/"stingy."

Being mean has consequences on my psyche I don't care for, and choosing to be nice avoids those consequences. And choosing to be generous has genuine rewards. But they are different choices (not opposed, but distinct). I am sometimes generous, I am often stingy, I try hard to be nice.

And of course, even if I eliminate all the false-hurt scenarios, there's still an effectively infinite amount of draw on my resources. There's an effectively infinite amount of pain out there. But I find that when the question of "being taken advantage of because I'm too nice" comes up, people are rarely talking about the time and effort they expend to alleviate genuine suffering. Perhaps that's just a side-effect of my experience.

All of which is rather tangential to the question of whether being mean is an effective interpersonal strategy (leaving aside whether it's an ethical one, and leaving aside whether it's an effective personal strategy). And I'm not really sure.

I suspect in most cases one can get what one wants without hurting anybody, if one is sufficiently creative and has enough resource-buffer to play with. So I'm inclined to say that (mean+assertive) is the simplest strategy. For people who aren't creative or don't have the buffer, that may make it the most effective strategy, in much the same sense that for some people, hitting me in the head with a stick is the most effective interpersonal strategy available to them.

I also suspect that for people with a conscience, being mean is damaging. So for reasonably creative people with consciences who control a reasonable set of resources, (nice+assertive) is probably the most effective strategy.

But I'm kinda talking out my bald spot now.
May. 21st, 2006 03:46 am (UTC)
By any chance have you read The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity? Your response brought up some interesting connections to this article for me; especially if we say that "assertive" means "helps me" and "mean" means "hurts others". It turns my questions into a sub-problem of the other one, perhaps.

If we argue that the overall problem is the definition of "hurt" to include "false-hurt", I think we're in a tough spot deciding what's a real hurt.

Is it a real hurt to make them lose face? Just between you and them? In a larger group? Is an ego-bruise a real hurt? I don't know.
May. 21st, 2006 05:29 am (UTC)
Hadn't until you pointed it out to me.
I can see the similarities.
I'll have to reread my response at some point with it in mind.
Off the top of my head, my impression is that the author presupposes the idea that my gain is someone else's loss in a way I don't think is necessary.

I also agree with you that deciding what is real harm is tricky. But I don't think the way out is to assume that everything everyone claims is harm actually is. There are contexts where I'm inclined to err on the side of the claimant... mostly, where the claimant is on the low end of a large power-disparities. Beyond that, I dunno.

I'm inclined to say that yes, damage to reputation or ego are real harms, albeit relatively minor ones. But I can't really quantify that.
May. 20th, 2006 03:30 am (UTC)
I think that you'd have to define the measurement of success better. Is success determined by making the most friends? By having closer friendships with those you have? By having friendships with the people with whom you would most like to have friendships? By achieving the maximum average happiness of the community? By being most comfortable with yourself?

I think to a degree it might be one of those things that tends toward self-fulfillment. People who use one or the other strategy will probably also value other people who subscribe to a similar strategy and thus will value connections with those people more highly.
May. 20th, 2006 03:42 am (UTC)
I don't think that it's nice to follow the false testimony of niceness. That is, I think it allows people to fail to grow, to fail to address their own sillinesses, to fail to challenge their own failures. That's not nice, I would say. Indeed, the nicest thing to do, quite often, is too very mean-soundingly shout, "the Emperor has no clothes!"

As an educator, it would be "nice" of me to offer my students easy homework, maybe. I'd be a little bit more popular (though as you know, they already do, mostly, like me). But it wouldn't be good for them.

In general, I think that there's a lot of virtue to trying to think about what consequences come from "niceness", before just giving people what they want. But that doesn't mean one should just look out for #1, and indeed, I think that may mean that the "nice/mean" axis isn't totally meaningful. (heh.)

This doesn't mean you should start beating me. *grin*
May. 20th, 2006 08:44 am (UTC)
I'd agree with this. And please don't start beating melted_snowball.
May. 20th, 2006 05:14 am (UTC)
It seems to me that being as-nice-as-possible implies valuing everyone else's time and opinions over your own. With no chance of being assertive at the same time.

I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and a group of us from my congregation gathered the other night to begin planning the Summer Solstice service. In the process of our chatting, we came around to how our first principle, "to affirm and promote the essential worth and dignity of every human being", at times causes us congregationally and individually to avoid confl1ict, however minor and/or helpful to social interaction the conflict may be.

Nice is good, but has its limits. And kind and/or peaceful need not always precisely equal nice. A friend of mine who grew up in Michigan one day said to me that "Southerners are two-faced." Being from the South, if its upper limits, myself, i asked him what he meant.

Well, if someone invites me into their house, invites me to sit down, but doesn't take my jacket, how am I supposed to know how long I should stay?

Five to fifteen tops, depending on tone of voice. And you may or may not actually take a seat,, I replied.

But you grew up in that culture; how am I supposed to know that?

I though for a few moments before I replied, You just finished a master's in international relations. The rules of diplomacy are not unlike the social rules in the South. Having grown up in a Southern culture while also going the embassy parties and the White House, the rules were basically the same.

See! I told you Southerners were duplicitous!

To which all i could do was smile and laugh. My point with that anecdote is that one can be polite, even nice, by the cultural rules, but still be nastily confrontational. Manners and politesse go a long way. (Judith Martin/Miss Manners is a personal hero.)
May. 20th, 2006 08:43 am (UTC)
I don't think anything can be a good interpersonal strategy that isn't a good personal strategy.

That is to say, by being superbly good at manipulation / aggression / seduction etc., it's possible to get almost anything you want out of someone else. But it ain't a relationship. And the spiritual damage to you is considerable. Therefore, all that stuff isn't actually going to help you.

Many happy returns. Have a fab day.
May. 20th, 2006 09:09 am (UTC)
First of all, Happy Birthday!

I don't think that being nice and being assertive are opposite views. It's all about knowing your own boundaries and being sensitive to other people's boundaries. It's possible to be "nice" while at the same time tresspassing on someone's sacred cow, so rather than being overly considerate it might be better to be aloof while practicing listening at the same time.

As an example, the waitress who comes along and asks you how it's going 500 times during dinner might be being nice, but she's also annoying.

May. 22nd, 2006 04:34 pm (UTC)
So: is meanness a good interpersonal strategy?

Prisoner's Dilemma, anyone?
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )