When to be Nice

Three weeks left in the semester.  I am trying not to drown.  I can’t write much today, but please read this and tell me what you think: is there such a thing as too nice, especially where female academics are concerned?

Image by Chris Bowers, from the Images from #Occupy Facebook album


14 thoughts on “When to be Nice

  1. This is one of those unanswerable questions – you have to do what works for you when it comes to how to stand up for yourself and your beliefs. I think that the way that the author of the article dealt with the person was appropriate. At the same time, I know that often I need to address certain comments because otherwise people continue to make them, thinking it is acceptable.

    I am in a predominately female profession, elementary education, but I am not a teacher. It is rare that comments are made by co-workers about the fact that I am not a teacher (I am a educational assistant), but it happens. Generally speaking, I do address the issue immediately and in a way that reminds the person about being part of the educational team. Other times, I have ignored the comment because I “considered the source”.

    The other type of comments that occur occasionally in educational settings that I NEVER let go are hateful comments made by students towards other students. Even in elementary school, you will hear “that black kid” or “he’s gay”. I believe that is a good time to address the comments, alhough I have been told that the students are too young to understand what they are saying. If they are old enough to say it, they are old enough to understand the impact of their words. Because perhaps if they are taught early on,then they will not get to be on committees and feel they can say negative things about another committee member for ANY reason.


    1. Paula: Your point about comments from students is an important one. I have several guilty memories of unkind comments that I have let slide over the years because it was easy to pretend I hadn’t heard them. I dislike confrontation and when I can ignore something I often do, even when I shouldn’t. One tricky part, I have found, is interpreting where the comment is coming from. Is a student openly denigrating another? Is the student simply speaking out of ignorance? The comments need to be addressed regardless, but I often find myself hesitating over HOW to address them.


  2. For me, the question would be “What is Nice?”…. if we had a definition that made sense it would be much easier to figure out when.
    For me, being nice is not about selling ones soul, it’s not about letting someone away with something either. It’s about respect, kindness, generosity, honesty, being a good listener, being positive, having humility, maturity, and sincerity.
    For a long time now my motto has been to treat people as I would like to be treated. It’s a great guideline for every situation, but there are times when it’s difficult to do because my ego gets in the way.
    I’ve always found that ‘niceness’ has worked much better for me in handling every situation than becoming angry, defensive, or aggressive. I can be assertive and get a point across without attacking or being accusatory. If someone is treating me in a negative way, there is more power in not reacting the same way, in staying calm, being confident, and stating the facts. This resolves most situations. If it doesn’t, it’s not worth losing my sanity over.
    Am I too naive?? Maybe, but it has given me lots of peace and diffused many difficult situations.


    1. Trudy:
      “What is Nice?” is a great question. I especially like your points about generosity, being a good listener, and having humility. It is tough, as you say, though, when we are confronted with someone who seems to have none of those traits and seems willing to abuse people who do.


  3. You know, I was just reading about this in a post responding to Katie Roiphe’s NYT opinion piece. One commenter said that she felt like if she said nothing or responded diplomatically, she was ignored, and nothing would change. OTOH, if she responded in a stronger way, she was dismissed as “just a feminist” or oversensitive. And nothing changed.


    1. Clix: I wonder if there’s a middle ground? I think it’s tough to expect change to happen immediately, but I also wonder if there are ways we can respond, neither diplomatically or aggressively, but inquisitively. In the classroom, for example, I’ve found that the most useful question I can ask is “What do the rest of you think of that comment?” This has been known to work in meetings, too…


  4. I always love it when people can use humour to deflate offensive people, but I’m not very good at it myself! And of course, we do need to respond in ways that fit our personalities. But letting obnoxious, offensive or abusive behaviour go can end up intimidating people who are witnessing it, too.

    There seems to be an underlying assumption in a lot of this conversation (including the original blog posting) that there are only two options in dealing with inappropriate behaviour; either one is ‘nice and polite’ and doesn’t respond or responds very minimally, or one is angry, defensive or aggressive. Whatever happened to a calm, polite, but ASSERTIVE response such as a very matter-of-fact ‘I’m sorry to hear that you retain such a sexist attitude’, followed by an equally matter-of-fact continuation of one’s original discussion, task, etc.

    Assuming that we (women or anyone) have to choose between being super-nice or aggressive is allowing those who would like to keep us not only well-behaved but in our place (whatever they think that should be) to define the field within which we may act.

    And not responding assertively to people who are obnoxious or abusive does actively encourage that kind of behaviour. If people like that were sensitive to others’ polite disagreement or discomfort, they wouldn’t be behaving this way to begin with!

    I love the ‘what do the rest of you think of that comment?’ option, but in class it has to be used carefully. Unfortunately, homophobic comments, for example, would get majority support in some of my classes!


    1. Karen: you know, I would be tempted to use it even if I felt there might be a majority support for offensive comments. I’ve found that showing a real curiosity about students’ beliefs encourages them to express them in a way that opens a dialogue. For example, some students are homophobic but have never met with any intelligent, rational discussion (from other students, in particular) about why homophobia is wrong. Having such a discussion may not change their beliefs, but it may plant seeds.

      That said, I think there’s a place for shutting students down when they are truly out of line. An example of a colleague’s tactic, and my thoughts about it, can be found here:


  5. I taught my elementary students before saying something to ask themselves, “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?” If the answer to all three is YES, then it is OK to say it; otherwise, keep it to yourself.

    Once you’ve spoken about that, it is easy to address derisive comments students make to each other. It’s easy then to say, “Was that helpful? Was that kind?”

    Sometimes students say, “I was just laughing with him.” So I point out that unless BOTH people are laughing, that is not true, and they certainly know it. Most of those comments are meant as put-downs and “laughing with him” is just an excuse to cover it up. I don’t let any of these comments pass without speaking up about them, either.

    I suggest in the future, if you intend to speak up about them, that you need to address the issue before it actually happens, such as tell students, “Sometimes I’ve heard students say unkind remarks to others in my classes, and this is not something I want to hear any more of.” You could address the issue in the middle of the term, or you could address it at the beginning of the term. Then it will give you a reason to speak up when it happens.

    Regarding being “nice,” I think to a lot of people it means not confronting anyone about their behavior. I think a better thing is to be compassionate (which isn’t the same as ignoring or being a pushover).

    I had one college professor my last semester of graduate school from whom I had taken many courses and been a good student. I was not able to do all the book reports for the class (I was getting divorced) and finally called him to ask if I could pass the class with a “D” if I did not turn them in, explaining why I was asking this. He very kindly said that what he could do is just grade me on the work I had turned in and that way I could get my graduate degree. This taught me a lot about compassion. He taught me HOW to be compassionate. I once was a stickler to the rules when a student of mine had a difficult situation, and he taught me how I could have behaved differently. I used what I learned many different times after this, even in dealing with elementary students. There are times when rules can be bent, and solutions found (such as I described in my last post, which I know you read, regarding helping the student who didn’t do ANY of their classroom reading).

    –Lynne Diligent, Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor


    1. “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?” is a good rule of thumb. And addressing things before they happen is crucial; I have a line in my course outline saying that “all discussion, including disagreement, must be conducted with civility and mutual respect.” In fact, I often summarize my class rules for the students as one golden rule: “Don’t be a jerk.” I then define for them what this means: don’t behave as though you’re the only person in the room, don’t act as though others’ feelings don’t matter, etc.


  6. It’s not possible (in my world) to do nothing about a comment like the one in the linked story, and it’s not advisable to get the meeting off-track by responding to the comment in any detail. But it is entirely possible to register self-respect by making a parenthetical comment in reply that is both true and also unanswerable. Something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s really offensive . . . now, Fred, in response to your earlier point. . . . ” or even “Just this once, I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”


    1. EB: I think the “acknowledge and move on” approach is a good one. It’s one I occasionally use in the classroom. Earlier in the semester I found myself saying, “I don’t think that’s a sincere question – I think you’re just trying to pick a fight – but here’s a valuable point I can see in what you’re saying.” The kid actually came up after class to apologize and try to make amends. I’m sure that doesn’t happen too often after faculty meetings, but it’s a way to confront the elephant in the room.


  7. I think that “considering the source” is my biggest rule to responding to things like this. My husband often finds himself frustrated because he sees me “not engage” in a response to something that he knows offended me or frustrated me. But, as I tell him…for my own sanity, if I know that saying something will simply lead to a defensive and rationalizing response and no change (because of past experiences), I will choose not to respond. But, if it is the first time something has happened, and I think it will be received appropriately, I will say something. Some people say these things simply TO get the response…and giving them what they want is not something I want to participate in.

    The other thing I do consider is whether the “audience” for the exchange will be impacted by my response. This is particularly important with a group of students – even if the student who said/did something is one of those that I know won’t change, its worth saying something if the students around them WILL. So, I guess for me its all driven by the situation.


    1. Sue: very interesting, and I think we are a lot alike in these respects. There is a lot to be said for picking one’s battles, but where the classroom is concerned, we have to be VERY careful about what we ignore.


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