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Are "nice" and "honest" mutually exclusive?


No, "niceness" is NOT incompatible with "honesty." Although that seems to be quite a popular meme these days -- that you can be nice, or you can be truthful, but not both.

UPDATE: I think I better define what I mean by nice... I don't mean "sweet" or "complimentary" or anything more than the absence of abuse. And yes, I do consider the word "asshole" an abusive comment because it attacks the person, not the topic/idea/statement/whatever. This doesn't mean I wouldn't call someone that... but if I do, I have no business trying to claim that I'm actually interested in having a discussion. What's ironic about the Ben/Mean thing is that it was actually Mena who called Ben the A-word, after calling for more civility. I reckon I would have done the same.

I haven't been able to put it nearly as well as Just Kidding's TQ White did in a comment on Rogers Cadenhead's blog:

"...you can always be nice, even when you are being honest. This idea that somehow rudeness or unkindness is intrinsic to an honest discussion is completely wrong. It also, I believe, is an attitude that is destroying our ability to have public discourse.

Manners, politeness, respect, cutting a person some slack, even overlooking some of one's own more petty points are all things that are perfectly consistent with honesty. Honesty requires not contradicting things you know to be true. It requires advancing viewpoints that you believe. It says nothing about the linguistic tactics.
...represent the typical, juvenile attitude of people that simply don't care who they hurt. That use 'honesty' as a sleight of hand to deflect attention from willingness to brutalize people in pursuit of their own goals - often that cannot be advanced in a reasonable way."

Something to think about...

UPDATE: Mena responds to the controversy over her "let's be civil" thing, and her take makes a lot of sense in this:

"It's not about nice--it's about accountability. ...it's about taking as much responsibility for what we write online -- whether that's on a blog, in an email message, or on IRC -- as we would in a face-to-face, private conversation."

It seems as though one of her big concerns is that there are so many people in the world that aren't blogging, and what works on slashdot might scare a lot of others away. And I also don't believe that the price for blogging -- or speaking at a tech conference -- it that you must be wearing an asbestos suit 24-7. Requiring ultra-thick skin to participate more fully in the tech (or any) community is a barrier to entry that might just push away some of those who might not necessarily be afraid of the brutality, but simply don't like it. I don't agree with this "if you can't take the heat stay out of the kitchen" notion here. (Or is it, "if you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch..." I get those confused.)

UPDATE: Rose made a good point in my comments -- my picture/post isn't actually describing the actual Ben/Mena thing--but the topic had been on my mind for some time, and this was simply the spark for a little post. The conversation continues all over the place, but mainly here, and includes this recent comment (made by an Englishman, no less:)

"The real problem with the abusive big-guns style of commenting is that it doesn’t work (except as intimidation, but perhaps that’s your real purpose?) Tell somebody that he is an asshole, that his work is bullshit, and you guarantee that he will (a) stop listening, and (b) reply in kind. Tell somebody that “this is wrong because X,Y,Z” and you might just change his mind."

Posted by Kathy on December 8, 2005 | Permalink


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I agree and the pictures are hilarious too.

Posted by: Daniel Nicolas | Dec 8, 2005 9:32:20 PM

I totally agree. I've seen so many people use 'honesty' as an excuse for them to blatantly rude to people in the name of 'truth', 'self-expression', 'feedback', etc.

But there is enough room for both honesty and niceness. To me, if you don't have enough flexibility to do something in more than one way (ie either honesty or niceness) you're stuck, and it's no longer the other person's fault, but yours as well for failing to find other solutions.

(And your pictures are always hilarious!)

Posted by: Alvin | Dec 8, 2005 9:39:36 PM

I agree with what you're saying about the word "honesty" sometimes being used as a vehicle for brutality but I really don't think this is the case in the example you're using. I wasn't at the conference but have watched a brief clip (http://dltq.org/media/menavsben.mov) and it seems to me that a conference delegate was talking informally on the IRC back channel, wrote "bullshit" in relation to something being said onstage, got *caught* because at that moment someone else decided to display the IRC chat transcript on the public screen, was forced to stand up like a naughty schoolboy to explain his behaviour and (in my opinion) did a very good job of explaining himself considering that most people would have been absolutely mortified and speechless in the same circumstances. That the person on stage then used the "F" word and called him an asshole seems more interesting to me, especially given that her topic was politeness and she was part of the official program.

The young man in my opinion was not guilty of the sort of "honesty" that you're describing. He just got caught out in an embarrassing moment that could have happened to anyone.

Watch the video and decide for yourself.

BTW - love your blog and hope you're feeling better after your recent break.

Posted by: roseg | Dec 9, 2005 1:34:27 AM

You can almost never be nice at work and also be honest! Impossible , everytime I say something like

"Oh, I really don't think you should do it, let X do it as he has experience with it"
is interpreted as
"Actually you suck, lack motivation,have big mouth and want the credit but no drive or instinct, so just step aside!"
which was actually the point!

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Dec 9, 2005 3:38:24 AM

Toastmasters has a nice method for dealing with some of this. a simple structure called CRC - commend recommend commend. You start with a commendation, then move onto feedback, then finish with another commendation. it makes it far easier to take constructive critique when it is wrapped in a commendation sandwich.

nice and honesty - its like the age old "does my butt look big in this"? context is perhaps all important.

Posted by: james governor | Dec 9, 2005 3:56:21 AM

100% ACK with blog post. Very nice.

Posted by: Tyco | Dec 9, 2005 4:36:04 AM

My basic tendency is bluntness, cut to the chase. However, as I've aged(mellowed?) I've learned that: a. tact is a good thing; b. it is possible to be honest without being a jerk. The nice versus honesty debate brings to mind all the freedom of speech smackdowns of guests and audiences that entertainers such as Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson so love to do. Do I support Freedom of Speech? Absolutely. However, there is a BIG difference between expressing an opinion and preaching hate or encouraging discord.

Posted by: Mary Schmidt | Dec 9, 2005 11:23:23 AM

It is one thing to say things like "you are../you need to.../that thing you made is.../the world is..." i.e. talking about "the other" as if what you say is a fact, the one and only thruth.

It is another thing to say "I feel../I need... and that's why I do.../I am..." i.e. talking clearly from one's own perspective. This way, instead of having opposing views against each other, where one is wrong and the other is right, you have different points of view which can be shared, put side by side, compared. The first way of reacting is probably much easier...

Posted by: Sammy Dellicour | Dec 9, 2005 12:18:50 PM

It seems to me that one unacknowledged item that is influencing the entire controversy (in a silent but decided way) is the issue of the degree to which people feel responsible for how others react to what they say.

The whole "nice INSTEAD OF honest" bit is about the dual notion that (a) when somebody asks for your opinion, they don't really want it unless it is complimentary to them and (b) whether you tell the truth or not in these situations is immaterial, as long as whatever you say doesn't upset the person you're talking to.

When you buy into the idea that it is your responsibility to keep people from being upset by what you say, you give yourself an impossible task unless you happen to be a telepath. As often as not, it has been my observation that folks combine rudeness with honesty (or dishonesty, for that matter) as a defensive reaction to the guilt they experience when they say something they know somebody isn't going to like.

Personally, I prefer old fashioned things like the Golden Rule in situations like that. I choose to be civil because I want people to treat me with civility and I don't feel I have the right to demand that if I'm not going to extend it. But I'm not going to take on the responsibility for whether you like what I say or not because I'm not a mind reader and I'm not going to try to guess whether you mean it when you ask what I think.

I have civilly upset any number of people this way, but I find that it saves both time and the wear and tear on my own conscience.

Posted by: The Journal Blogger | Dec 9, 2005 12:53:21 PM

The pictures are wonderful.

This false dichotomy -- nice vs. honest -- is endemic in our culture. I believe it is because very few of us learn alternative methods to be forceful and clear without being hostile. It's a skill, and it needs to be explicit taught and practices. The other skill is how to respond without defensiveness when verbal violence is directed at you. Same thing--needs to be taught and practiced.

Suzette Haden Elgin has written a wonderful book, "How To Disagree Without Being Disagreeable". It's availabe at Amazon. I've outlined the book in three posts:
Part I: introduction and overview, also discusses the false reasons people feel they must use hostile
language (http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2004/06/part_i_how_to_d.html)
Part II discusses the three fundamentals to staying unflustered in a conflict Detachment, Listening, and Metaphors (http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2004/06/part_ii_how_to_.html)
Part III outlines some of the alternative strategies to verbal violence. (http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2004/06/in_part_one_we_.html)

At How Stuff Works, Ms. Elgin has a part presentation of "Verbal Self Defense".

Part One Introduction and Overview.(http://people.howstuffworks.com/vsd.htm)
Part Two The Basics of Verbal Self Defense (http://people.howstuffworks.com/vsd1.htm)
Part Three Using the Boring Baroque Response (http://people.howstuffworks.com/vsd2.htm)
Part Four Using the Computer Response
Part Five Going Forward.

There's also a template for making an effective complaint (http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2004/06/making_an_effec.html)

Posted by: Liz | Dec 9, 2005 6:30:34 PM

When I started reading this post, my first thought was "surely people don't really think like that!?" (referring to the honesty/niceness thing), now I have a sneaking suspicion that I know people who think like that. As for the "if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen" attitude a friend of mine actually stopped blogging because of attacks on him and his friends (based on information in his blog) by people with exactly that attitude.

Thanks for the post. This is definitely something that needs to be discussed in a public forum.

Posted by: Michael Holland | Dec 10, 2005 4:26:02 AM

The Englishman writes: ooooh, quoted in CPU! My 3.2 metric seconds of fame start now :-)

Posted by: johnsk | Dec 10, 2005 5:35:14 AM


Posted by: Joe | Dec 10, 2005 5:47:11 AM

One of the things that constantly surprises me about online speech, whether email, blog, comment, IRC, whatever, is that you'd *think* it might give people more time to phrase their idea in the most appealing manner. (maybe that's because I don't type all that fast).

It's not uncommon for me to upset someone when I'm talking, because there's no delay... I don't always remember to take time to think. Usually, when that happens, it's a misunderstanding, not an attack; just the result of poor judgement. With email, or comments, I tend to re-read what I'm writing and make sure I've put my ideas across in the best manner consistent with what I know about the person I'm talking to. I try to make sure the meaning will get through, and the best way to do that is to remove extra content that might confuse the issue (like the word asshole, for example. [that was a joke, actually, but exactly the kind of mistake I'd make when speaking]).

I like to make people think, but I'm not deeply invested in the outcome of their thinking. If the conclusion they come up with differs from mine, I'm okay with that. I don't care for blind dogma, but why would I argue with an examined perspective that comes up different?

I think what I like best about honesty is that it saves time. We're not all going to agree all the time, nor are we all going to be partners, best friends, neighbors, whatever. There's room for dissent. Being open about your own thoughts is a great way to sort out the people who will or won't value your company. But it's no call for acrimony. Live and let live is a philosophy that needn't include maiming, no?

Posted by: johntunger | Dec 11, 2005 1:19:33 AM

Tarry: well then, you WERE both nice and honest... you said it *nicely* and he interpreted it *correctly* : )

james Governor: "nice and honesty - its like the age old "does my butt look big in this"? context is perhaps all important."

Ahhhh... so true. There's honest and then there's *honest*. Someone once told me the nicest thing you could say to a very pregnant woman is something like, "Hey, are you sure you've been getting enough to eat lately?"

Journal Blogger: "But I'm not going to take on the responsibility for whether you like what I say or not because I'm not a mind reader and I'm not going to try to guess whether you mean it when you ask what I think."

Totally agree. My personal opinion is that becoming "offended" by things is often in itself a form of rudeness, but that's for another topic.

Mary, Sammy -- great points, thank you.

And Liz, thanks so much for all these great references!

JohnSK: and we so thank the Englishman for stopping by : )

[side note: as one who has lived in both England and California, I found the whole "Oh, this "be nice" thing is so Californian while we Brits/Eurpoeans are the straight shooters..." to be hilariously warped. ]

johntunger: "Live and let live is a philosophy that needn't include maiming, no?"


Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 11, 2005 8:18:52 PM

Yesterday over bagels I found Tom Tomorrow's comic last week to be fitting:


Modern World blog is at:


Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 12, 2005 9:24:01 AM

'as one who has lived in both England and California, I found the whole "Oh, this "be nice" thing is so Californian while we Brits/Eurpoeans are the straight shooters..." to be hilariously warped'

Oh good - it makes absolutely no sense to me (A Brit). (Apart from anything else, the expletive Ben used is almost as much an Americanism as Mena's.) No, the *British* approach would be a finely-woven fabric of insinuation, sarcasm and understatement -

[dotPhil]Blimey, Mena's plumbing new heigths today - guess we know now where 6A gets all
[dotPhil]those innovatvie ideas... Seriously, this really is quite poor, wouldn't you say?

Signed off with a 'toodle-pip' and a tip of the virtual bowler, needless to say.

Posted by: Phil | Dec 13, 2005 4:49:27 AM

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