Nagging is the dispiriting, unpleasant, counter-productive but wholly understandable and poignant version of a hugely noble ambition: the desire to change other people.
There is so much we might fairly want to change about them. We’re an entirely imperfect lot. And so we want them to be more self-aware, punctual, generous, reliable, introspective, resilient, communicative, profound… At home, we want them to focus more on the sink, the children, the bins, the money and the need to put the phone down and look up. At a macro dimension, we want them to think more about the suffering of encaged animals, the destruction of our habitat and the iniquities of capitalism. We are, most of us, very far from our ideal selves – and at the level of the species, come close to an evolutionary error. The desire to change people is no pathology; it’s a clear-sighted recognition of human wickedness.
Nagging is, in its essence, an attempt at teaching, at getting an idea for improvement from one mind into another. But it is also a version of teaching that has given up hope. It has descended into an attempt to insist rather than invite, to coerce rather than charm. One has grown too tired, and humiliated by constant rebuffs to have the energy to seduce. One is too panicked by the thought that the unteachable ‘student’ is ruining one’s life to find the inner resources to see it a little more from their point of view. It’s one’s own suffering that dominates all the available imaginative capacity.
And so one gets straight to the point, gets rid of the garlands, omits the honey and says it in plain terms. The bins need attention now. Get to the table immediately. You’re a selfish layabout. Not there, here… One isn’t wrong. One is very right, but also very tired and, deep down, sad.
Lamentably, also, it doesn’t work. By the time one has started humiliating the student, the lesson is over. Nagging breeds its evil twin, shirking. The other pretends to read the paper, goes upstairs and feels righteous. The shrillness of one’s tone gives them all the excuse they need to trust that we have nothing kind or true to tell them.
One changes others only when the desire that they evolve has not reached an insistent pitch, when we can still bear that they remain as they are. All of us improve only when we have not been badgered or made to feel guilty; only when we have a sense that we are loved and deeply understood for the many reasons why change is so hard for us. We know, of course, that the bins need our attention, that we should strive to get to bed earlier and that we have been a disappointment in the couple. But we can’t bear to hear these lessons in an unsympathetic tone; we want – tricky children that we are – to be indulged for our ambivalence about becoming better people.
The same obtuse dynamic is at play at the political level. We know we shouldn’t abuse the planet, bend rules or close our hearts to the unfortunate. But we won’t do any of the good things if a dour figure wags their finger and delivers stern lectures. We want to be charmed, not dragged, into goodness.
The tragedy of nagging is that its causes are usually so noble – and yet that it doesn’t work. We nag because we feel that our possession of the truth lets us off having to convey it elegantly. It never does. The solution to nagging isn’t to give up trying to get others to do what we want. Rather, it is to recognise that persuasion always needs to occur in terms that make sense to those who so badly need to be altered.