I’m going to let you into a secret: I’m not a very nice person.
Now, before you start with platitudes and denials, let me elaborate a little. Firstly, I am incredibly lazy. There is not a single shred of me that would rather get up on a Sunday to mark students' work than stay in bed. On break duty, I’d much rather mill around the central courtyard than pace the corridors and my gym kit has wallowed for the last three weeks in the passenger seat of my car (and yet I will loudly tell anyone who listens I’m a devotee of yoga).
But, it gets worse. When I’m tired, I’m mardy*, with my best mates after a glass of wine I’ve been known to make some seriously bitchy comments, and when people like my teaching ideas on Twitter I feel a twinge of hubris which left unchecked could easily develop into full blown narcissism.
Earlier this week a few people weren’t desperately nice to me online. But that didn’t make me feel shocked or surprised. I get it. Because, remember, I’m not nice either.
What does surprise me is that, unlike me, many of these people don’t seem to want to do something about their lack of ‘niceness’.
Now, I’m not talking about being Kate Middleton ‘nice’. God help me. No, my version of nice isn’t Victoria spongecake, Daniel Buble, or a photo of a baby next to one of those bloody annoying ‘2 weeks old today’ cards.
To me, being ‘nice’ first and foremost means being kind. In other words, ensuring whatever you want to say or do doesn’t make others feel less crappy than it really needs to. When my mum was an RE teacher she had twenty versions of the ‘golden rule’ – treat others how you want to be treated – from different religions emblazoned on the walls of her classroom. As a happy atheist, I too think it’s a pretty good marker for whether your actions are kind and decent.
By my definition, being a ‘nice’ person also means trying really damn hard to have empathy with others and then using it to inform your opinions and reactions: particularly when you don’t agree with someone. Part of this has got to mean that the idea of having ‘a decent sense of humour’ is rewritten to mean ‘having a sense of humour with decency’.
So, how do you stop yourself laughing at blonde jokes, Ricky Gervais’ ‘Life’s too short’, or (ahem) the gender pay gap? I think Daniel Goleman has the answer.
When I read Goleman’s work on ‘emotional intelligence’ for the first time last year (the book having been gifted to me by someone who has EQ in bucket loads) it made me see that, rather than being slave to some innate ‘personality’, we have agency and choice when it comes to reactions that we otherwise see as instinctual.
Crucially – and this is also an increasingly important idea for me in my teaching– we can hardwire new impulses through conscious repetition that forms new habits.
In other words, you can make yourself nicer.
Goleman explains that emotional intelligence and the resulting behaviours can be changed by seeking out experiences that allow us to practise the aspect we want to develop and then getting constructive feedback on our progress. It’s arguably why really good friends will tell you when you’ve pissed them off, are blowing your own trumpet, or being a bitch. They want a nice friend and by flagging up when you’re not so nice it’s helping you learn better habits.
Goleman made me see that I may not be a nice person all of the time. But, by seeking out opportunities to be kinder and more empathetic I will steadily grow these aspects of myself. I’d like to think that’s what prompted me to pick up my phone on Tuesday morning when I saw someone not being so kind or showing empathy to 50% of the population.
In conclusion, there’s no excuse not to be ‘nice’ and I wonder if Piers Morgan has any really good friends.**
* Southerners, read ‘moody without good cause’.
** In my defence, I did say I was bitchy after a glass of wine.