When it comes to virtue, it’s difficult to find a better guide than Aristotle.
Growing up, I never considered myself to be particularly nice, perhaps because I’m from a rural part of New Brunswick, one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces— the conspicuously “nicest” region in a self-consciously nice country. My parents are nice in a way that almost beggars belief—my mother’s tact is such that thestrongest condemnation in her arsenal is “Well, I wouldn’t say I don’t like it, per se…” As for me, teenage eye-rolls gave way to undergraduate seriousness, which gave way to graduate-student irony. I thought of Atlantic Canadian nice as a convenient way to avoid telling the truth about the way things are—a disingenuous evasion of the nasty truth about the world. Even the word nice seems the moral equivalent of “uninteresting”— anodyne, tedious, otiose.
That’s why I remember being a bit shocked when my colleagues at my first job in Massachusetts kept informing me that I was “too nice” to share my opinion about something or someone. Didn’t they know they were speaking to a percipient and courageous truth-teller? Maybe it was my harrowing stint as a commuter in Worcester—why won’t these people on the MassPike in fact use their “blinkahs”?—or maybe becoming a dad softened me up, but I have, initially with some dismay, found myself increasingly enjoying trying to be nice.