The other day, at a dinner thing, someone remarked that people, in general, have become "pretty horrible".
"Not a day goes by when I don't come across at least one arrogant, unlikeable person," she sighed. "I don't understand why people can't just be nice."
It's a recurring concern, one we've all heard before. We've wondered why the people we meet don't smile more, make more of an effort, and are generally not friendlier, kinder, and more agreeable. We discuss declinism, and nod in agreement when someone declares that society is taking a turn for the worst.
Ironically, the human brain is wired to be cooperative, generous, and caring—doing so released serotonin in the caveman's brain and made him feel good, but more importantly, it was nature's way of ensuring we didn't thwack, clobber, or neglect each other, leading to the collapse of the species. So when we're the opposite of nice, it has less to do with genetic coding, and more with conditioning. Which makes me wonder—are we in some way, even a teensy way, actually encouraging bad behaviour amongst friends, family, colleagues, and lovers? Could it be that while everybody claims to love a nice guy, in reality, we often punish him?
My father is the nicest human I know; too nice, some might say. He believes in the powers of politeness and raised my sister and I with quotes you might see on an e-card—'Humility is Everything'; 'In the End, Being Good is the All That Matters'; and this gem that came way before 50 Shades—'People Aren't Black or White; They're Shades of Grey, and You Need to Respect That'. He encouraged us to treat people equally, be kind to strangers unless they were brandishing guns, and avoid the trappings of a familiar party game I like to call, 'Who Will Say Hello First?'. But even as a little girl, I noticed his preachings had some holes. Because, I discovered, a lot of people reacted to niceness in a paradoxical way—by being rather un-nice. By the time I was 16, and navigating the perilous world of highschool and teenagers, it was apparent that the 'eager' kids were uncool, while the aloof, snarky ones popular. Same in college. We knew a girl who routinely offered to help with research, was enthusiastic about making plans, and returned from the holidays laden with presents and home-baked cake. Nobody liked her. My father would have been impressed with her thoughtfulness. Others, not so much.
The thing is, when someone is too friendly or obliging, our instinct is to mistrust them, in the same way we would a smiling salesman who's peddling an Encyclopedia set. Have you ever distanced yourself from a 'too nice' acquaintance because you're suspicious of her ulterior motives? Or taken an over-eager friend for granted? We dump 'nice guys' because they're not enough of a challenge (studies say women find responsive men less sexually attractive), and believe people who 'give too much' are weak or needy. Agreeable people take a beating at work, too—a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that cooperative and agreeable men and women earned less than their 'disagreeable' colleagues, while another study confirmed that 'do-gooders' who took on unwanted tasks or gave gifts without being prompted, quickly alienated themselves as others began resenting them for 'trying too hard'. There's more. When the University of British Columbia conducted a study to predict future leadership, they found that skill and dominance—even bullying—topped the list. Likeability did not feature at all. And, my favourite—in a Big Boss-style study, participants could 'vote out' team members each week. Surprisingly, they ousted the most generous players from the group! Why? Probably because it made them look bad and put pressure to be equally selfless, concluded psychologists.
To sum it up, it pretty much sucks to be a good person. And that, in itself, is pretty sucky. The more we dismiss niceness, the less people will be nice. Haven't you ever been forced to put on a tough attitude to avoid being seen as a pushover? I know I have. And in the end, we're left riding a mean merry-go-round, in a world where we don't understand why people just can't be nice. The solution is surprisingly simple—reward people for being good. And continue being good, even if others don't quite appreciate it...at first.