Selling Out to Niceness

Quakers are nice people. We’re known for that. We smile at people we pass on the street. We clean up after ourselves. We say “please” and “thank you” to those who clear our tables or carry our luggage; we recycle, and we tip.

But niceness has limitations and pitfalls that we ignore at our peril. I submit that in some ways niceness is eroding the Religious Society of Friends: it seduces us away from practices that could sustain us, and in certain ways it does actual harm. Many Friends have observed that our meetings are graying, shrinking, and losing vitality. Getting a handle on niceness could help to turn that trend around.

The problem

I assisted recently in the middle school classroom at a large and prominent meeting. The day’s activities included a game-show-style Quaker quiz that engaged one sixth-grade Friend in particular. Having been raised in this active meeting, he knew his Quaker principles and was eager to learn more. But to every question that began with “Why do Quakers . . .” he turned to niceness as the reason. Why do Quakers work for equality? To make everyone feel good about themselves. Why is community important to Friends? So no one’s feelings get hurt. Why do Quakers conduct business the way we do? Because everyone’s opinion matters. In his every answer, there was a modicum of truth and a chasm of missing information. This boy was evidently being raised in a religion he thought of as the Polite Society of Nice People.

Now, I’m not advocating a world without niceness. It does a lot of good in the right places, and its absence can be devastating. If the only other option is violence of some kind, then niceness is a reasonable choice, and in certain situations everything depends on niceness. When it is not important to continue a relationship or to deepen an existing one, for example, niceness can be the cool-headed usher with the flashlight who shows everyone safely to the exits of a burning theater. Leaders of nations in conflict may avert war by being nice to each other. Successful mediation requires niceness, as do many business transactions. Niceness is as important to neighborly relations as fences are.

However, I do want to distinguish niceness from kindness, which is another thing entirely. Kindness comes from love and results in closer relationship; it comforts and joins together; it is related to compassion as well as self-sacrifice, service, and respect. When we behave kindly, we feel its effects as keenly as do those to whom we’re directing our kindness. Sometimes it’s hard to muster kindness, but when we do, it lifts us above the source of our resistance and gives us a broader and deeper understanding of ourselves as well as others. In contrast, niceness comes from habit and sometimes even from fear, discomfort, or aversion. It’s easy, and it makes us feel comfortable. It lets us keep our preconceptions about others. It masquerades as caring while resisting intimacy; it distances by conveying benign disinterest. Niceness implies, “I’m keeping things superficial because you have nothing of value to offer me.” When we’re being nice, we remain separate and may even experience a sense of superiority. Niceness is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

These are some things nice people don’t do: Contradict. Challenge. Intrude. Brag. Pry. Discuss “private” things. Ask “too much” of others. Walk toward conflict.

There are two places where niceness does not serve us as Friends. One is among ourselves; the other is in our engagement with the world. And since that pretty much covers everything we are and do, it is essential that we learn to recognize when niceness undermines all that we cherish, so that we can use it with intention when it’s appropriate and avoid its allure when it’s not.

It is essential that we learn to recognize when niceness undermines all that we cherish, so that we can use it with intention when it’s appropriate and avoid its allure when it’s not.

Niceness within the Religious Society of Friends

Years ago I visited an inner-city Protestant church in Cleveland, Ohio, whose minister could have held his own on any comedic talk show, the kind where truth is told. His topic was the Body of Christ that lived right there among his congregation. It was tired, frayed, old, and exhausted, he said. Oh, people were coexisting amicably and tasks were being tended, but the Light was gone. He imitated the way his parishioners greeted one another: “How you doin’?” Lively, upbeat, nice, the inflection rising cheerfully, the demand for the requisite answer (“Oh, fine thanks, how about you?”) built in. What the Light needed, he said, was the greeting his aunt used to offer everybody who passed through the back door into her kitchen: “How you DO-in’?” Warm, close-up, slow, the timbre falling at the end into a tight lock of the eyes.

Do we care enough to push aside the veil of niceness and know one another? To enter private space and share how the divorce is coming, what the doctor said about those test results, how sobriety was challenged last night, how anger has taken us to a dark place we’re struggling to find a way out of, how it’s been months since we felt the presence of God? Do we have that level of trust among us? Moreover, do we recognize that kind of conversation as the water in the garden of spiritual life?

In 1657 George Fox urged “Friends every where” to “know one another in that which is eternal” because “this differs you from the beasts of the field, and from the world’s knowledge” (Epistle 149). He went on to say that meeting together in the Light saves us from “run[ning] into the earth,” from “grow[ing] weary and slothful, and careless, and heavy, and sottish, and dull, and dead.” In other words, our fellowship in the Light keeps us from forgetting what it is that makes us Friends. Togetherness in the Light keeps us in the Light.

Knowing each other in the eternal is a far cry from niceness. It requires doing all the things that niceness forbids. It means being vulnerable, reaching out across difference and conflict, laying bare the most tender of inner spaces, and trusting. It may be the most difficult thing we ever do. But Fox urged this on us because the very practice of such intimacy is a spiritual discipline. He didn’t say we should know each other in this way because it builds a pleasant community, or because it makes us comfortable, or even because it unifies uswhich it sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t, at least in the short run. He said that without this spiritual discipline we lose our connection with the Light. Knowing each other in the depths beyond niceness is as much a testimony of Friends as the other practices that keep us faithful.

The secular world runs well on niceness, but the Light in which we meet demands attention to a much deeper level of ourselves and each other. We sell out to niceness when we nod politely and walk past those from whom we feel different, when we agree to serve in a capacity to which we don’t feel fully led, when our committee and business meetings are comfortably conversational rather than worshipfully attentive, when we choose the path of least resistance.

In one meeting with which I’m familiar, a clearness committee was formed to discern membership for the partner of a current member. For convenience, since everyone lived at some distance, the committee met at the meetinghouse before worship. When asked why he sought membership, the candidate replied that it was because “Quakers don’t have a creed, so they don’t tell you what to believe.” Although members of the committee saw that this answer revealed a desperate need for education, instead they resorted to niceness, nodding politely and making a quick thumbs-up decision so as not to be late for worship, risk offending the member-partner, or inconvenience everyone with another committee meeting.

Much was lost in this moment. The committee members lost integrity; the new member missed out on exploring further; everyone in the room lost the chance to know each other better and to experience the assistance of the Light in bringing them to clarity. Perhaps most significantly, the meeting lost the opportunity to expand its ranks of members who are fully aware of the meaning of being a Friend, and so the Religious Society of Friends credentialed an ambassador who would carry his inaccurate understanding out into the world. In the blink of an eye, niceness eroded the future of Friends.

Discernment is not a nice process. When we navigate inwardly to speak a message we receive during worship, we’re bushwhacking through a jungle of ego, self-deception, neediness, self-doubt, and all kinds of other shadow motivations in order to reach the raw light of truth. Niceness to ourselves subverts the whole meaning of this process, not to mention the result. When we listen together for the sense of the meeting, we subject our corporate decisions to a relentless and exacting review. Sometimes we must enter dark places together. Kindness, gentleness, forbearance, forgiveness, and patience all have a place in this process, but niceness does not.

If we were to shift our interactions consistently from niceness to kindness, imagine how our worship would deepen, our love for one another blossom, our sense of ourselves as Friends settle into the depths of our nature.

Source image by Elliott Brown,

How often do we wonder why visitors haven’t returned, saying, “But we were so nice to them!”?

Niceness in our outreach

I recently enjoyed a long conversation with a very committed Friend I’ve known for over 20 years, and he told me the story of how he came to Friends. He was raised with no particular religious belief, but as a teenager, he went to Quaker meeting with a neighbor now and then “because her daughter was cute.” One of the men in the meeting, someone he describes in retrospect as “an elder,” invited him for a walk one day after worship, and together they left the meetinghouse and strolled down the street. The elder asked how he was, and the teen launched into the usual kind of answer: how well his soccer team was doing, subjects he liked and disliked at school. The man listened for a bit, and then during a pause, he said, “No, really, how’s your life?” The revelation hit this teenage boy with the force of conviction: “these people are interested in the things that matter.” He felt fully and genuinely cared for, and he knew this was where he belonged.

How often do we wonder why visitors haven’t returned, saying, “But we were so nice to them!”?

In his keynote address at the 2015 Friends General Conference Gathering, Parker Palmer described the Religious Society of Friends’ urgent need for renewal. He cited the fact that our numbers decreased by half between 1972 and 2012. “Statistics like these—along with the rising median age of meeting membership—have some sober observers suggesting that the Quaker community might end its run by the close of this century.” However, he observed that the world is full of people he characterized as hungry for “treasures” that Friends have in abundance: “treasures sometimes hidden from us by our familiarity with them, and too often hidden from others by our reluctance, even inability, to talk about them.” To the extent that that reluctance comes from scruples about seeming to be bragging or treading on sensitive ground or invading the listener’s privacy, niceness is contributing to the problem.

Palmer also notes that some of the challenges to expanding the Society of Friends are built into its beliefs and practices. In particular, he says that “its open form of worship—and its belief in continuing revelation—can easily be mistaken for ‘anything goes.’” Liberal Friends ourselves promulgate this untruth by giving newcomers the impression that we have no particular creed. It’s not nice to tell your guests what to do and say, so we roll out what we think is the welcome mat by assuring newcomers that all beliefs are valid here. But this is no more true than so many other platitudes that niceness spawns. The least-common-denominator understanding of who Friends are is a misrepresentation to others and erodes our own sense of identity. In fact, Friends do have a set of commonly held beliefs, practices, values, and outlooks. Pretending otherwise in the interest of drawing in newcomers highlights the way in which niceness can verge on deceit.

This particular expression of niceness ironically confounds our desire for increased diversity. It may seem as if a “come as you are” invitation would encourage diversity by welcoming everyone, but as Adria Gulizia points out in “Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity” (Friends Journal Jan. 2019), this kind of relativism “fit[s] neatly with white, middle-to-upper class, liberal culture” and alienates those who, like many people of color, hold to more traditional theologies. Those very theologies are alive and well among Friends, but at least partly from get-along niceness, we keep them under wraps. Similarly, young people seeking a religious and spiritual home may be looking for something more than the “anything goes” relativism that the secular world provides in abundance. Our scruples about being too forward or too intrusive may prevent us from conveying who we really are. As a result, we fail to provide a true welcome to those who might enrich our community immeasurably.

When people are hungry for Truth, niceness is the spiritual equivalent of a handful of potato chips. In actuality, Friends have a nourishing banquet to share. If, instead of niceness, we offer kindness, respect, attentiveness, genuine interest, and transparency about our own experiences in the Light, then we show true hospitality and demonstrate the kind of spiritual home we have to offer.

Forward without niceness

A secular virtue, niceness is a Trojan horse among Friends. Its familiarity may be reassuring, but easy comfort is not conducive to the kind of spiritual encounters that Friends seek. When we open to the Light, what it illuminates may not be nice. It may be challenging, inconvenient, discomfiting, humbling, even disruptive; it might contradict things we or others have held to be dearly true. It might also be dazzling, inspiring, uplifting, deeply moving, transformative. Friends’ experience tells us that it will always be worthwhile.

Just as niceness can obscure doorways to spiritual transformation, it may also hinder us from living the courage of our convictions. It can deprive us of the empowering experience of witnessing to the world who we are as Friends, in turn depriving others of the chance to learn what we know. The alternative to niceness does not have to be meanness, cruelty, or anything of the sort. Living and breathing who we are, even at the risk of being vulnerable or intrusive, can be a gracious and ultimately unifying act.

Ann Jerome

Ann Jerome is a member of Orlando (Fla.) Meeting in Southeastern Yearly Meeting. She has twice helped to found worship groups where she lives in Deland, Fla. Recently she served for two years as a Friend in residence at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa.

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