In the south there is a saying and it basically goes, “Bless their heart.” It is basically code for, get a load of this guy or serves as the nicest insult in the English language. As Southerners we are taught from a young age that being nice is often more important than being right. That arguing, even when done respectfully can be rude and, as my mother put it, “just ugly.” And I think this is a way of thinking that is pervasive with many of our higher ed colleagues. The term “Higher Ed Nice” is a thing, and it can be a bit of a misnomer.
There are certainly two camps in the world of nice for higher education and they are not always limited to a group of students, faculty, or staff. In many cases they are built upon who has power and influence. I have no data to back me up but would bet that if we looked at certain classifications of faculty, certain subjects, and certain roles in student affairs we can find higher concentration of higher ed nice and a more willingness to engage in acts of being less nice. But overall, I think there is a default to be nice if you can and that is admirable.
Civility and being nice is something that we at least value as a field. In 2014, a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and focusing on Provost and Dean level administrators found that 71% of this population had concerns about declining civility among higher ed faculty and staff and 83% of higher ed leaders believed civility should be a criterion for evaluating faculty and staff performance. Afterall, we have all likely seen how one toxic member of our team can derail projects, influence students, and create chaos. We know from most HR training that toxic negativity or confrontational environments can have detrimental impacts on all of our performance and can drill down into our student’s lives.
However, there should be room for civil debate. One of the central tenets of higher education is dissent and debate. But we should desire positive and productive dissent and not engage in aggressive behavior. Nor should we resort to micro-aggressions. The “Bless Your Heart” statement is an example of this. It can be just as damaging as being told to flip a boat because we all know what you mean.
For most of my career I have been called nice, even a pushover. Students and staff often take my niceness for weakness and, honestly, sometimes they are right. But this can be a negative thing to be labeled. Afterall, there is a sense that “nice guys finish last” but it does not have to be that way. Look, I am seen as one of the nice guys, but I think there are some reasons for that and a way that hopefully I exhibit how to be higher ed nice without being a sucker.
- Just because I am a nice person does not mean I do not express my opinions of ideas – Quite the opposite. I find that I am more likely to express my opinions because I feel comfortable to do so. As a nice person I can criticize with support, and advocate with kindness. But being nice is also being willing to compromise or understand when your side has lost and to accept that with little or no remorse.
- Nice people are not here to be your doormat – just because you need someone to agree or support you there is still a need to convince me it is the right course of action. I am also more than willing to fight for what is fair. I do not believe that nice people need to give up their agency or self-worth just to be nice to others. This is not how I was raised. If I think I need to I will certainly stand up for myself.
- Just because I am nice does not mean I will not disagree with you – I love a good debate and I am well known for engaging in intellectual fisticuffs online, at the lounge, at the session, or in the classroom. I will challenge my students if I feel they are misinformed and will disagree with you if I think you are wrong. Now, in some cases I will back down if the debate gets too wild or starts to become toxic. Just because I am nice does not mean I won’t ghost you if you have been mean or unreasonable. I am more of a walk away person than a dig in person.
- As a nice person, I still have high standards – I believe in doing a good job, doing it well, and not stopping until the job is done. Here is my secret weapon, because I am nice, you are going to want to perform at your highest level because there is nothing worse than disappointing someone you really like. I know I do not. So, I find being nice gets a better result in effort and attention to details. I mean, a job well done is also going to get you more than a pat on the back from a nice person. We will likely buy lunch, grab the beer tab, or send flowers because that is just the kind of person I am.
- And I can get upset, frustrated, or show anger – Just because I am nice person does not mean I do not have negative emotions. I will throw a fit from time to time, but I like to do so away from prying eyes. I find a place no one can see me, and I scream at the sky, or curse a bit, or even say a mean thing just to get it out and then I refocus and return to the work at hand. But if see I am angry, know that is a perfectly acceptable emotion too.
Higher ed nice is something that I strive for, but it is important that these feelings are genuine and not manufactured. When done honestly, higher ed nice can be a liberating place to be. Bless my heart.