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Sociability • Social Virtues

Why Nice People Give Us the ‘Ick’

There are many things that might disrupt the mood of a promising early date: a sudden discovery of a maddening political opinion, a grating laugh, poor dental hygiene, an unfortunate choice of top. But there is a far more perplexing and, superficially at least, paradoxical kind of distaste that might abruptly arise. One might want to take leave of a companion – and even rush outdoors to vomit – not because they are crude, dim or nasty but because they have revealed themselves to be undeniably and conspicuously nice.

Photo of a broadly smiling, 'nice' looking man in a button down shirt.
Photo by Remi Turcotte on Unsplash

Why might kindness be so hard to bear? Why should warmth prove – on occasion – comprehensively repulsive? Why might nausea descend in the face of emotional maturity? Because, through no fault of our own, our whole character may have been built up around the need to cope well with not being given what we want; with not finding intimate satisfaction, with not being the recipient of anyone’s reliable kindness, with being foiled in our search for tenderness and sympathy. As people with an allergic response to warmheartedness, somewhere in our past, we are liable to have experienced severe letdown, against which we had to insulate ourselves with a plethora of clever defensive strategies. We learnt to always reject before we were rejected; we learnt not to get taken in by anyone’s honeyed words, we firmly exchanged hope for cynicism and vulnerability for impregnability.

No wonder then that a kind soul might come across as extremely threatening. The nausea we feel in their presence isn’t so much disgust as fear; the fear that we may have to shed our defences in the name of trusting that life may not going forward have to be as cold, isolated, and frightening as it evidently once was. 

We hear so often of the difficulties of emotional misery; they may be as nothing next to the challenges of emotional contentment, the challenge of having to unclench our suspicions and give up on our reserves of fear and disdain. 

The real risk of dating isn’t that our partners will be awful (there’s no end of fun to be had turning minor disasters into dark wit), but that once in a while, they may be unblemished and sweet. Anyone can bear love that fails; it takes a very fortunate and secure childhood to countenance that it might in fact work out. 

It can be so tempting to accuse a kind candidate of something – to call them ‘boring’ or ‘soppy’ or to make an acid remark about their way of stepping through a door or asking for more ice. We should have sufficient insight into our own difficult trajectories to put a finger more accurately on the true sources of our discomfort: that these unfortunates are in danger of not making us suffer in the way we have grown up expecting that we will have to suffer in order to feel we are in love. We reject not out of meanness, but because we have had so little experience of kindness. 

The next time the ick of kindness descends, we might dare to turn it away in the name of starting out on what might turn out to be the greatest adventure of our lives: a belief in the possibility of contentment and closeness.

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