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The Meaning of NiceReview - The Meaning of Nice
How Compassion and Civility Can Change Your Life
by Joan Duncan Oliver
Berkley Trade, 2012
Review by Dan Buccino
May 15th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 20)

As befitting an author who has spent her career largely in journalism and magazine editing, Joan Duncan Oliver's slim paperback, The Meaning of Nice, reads briskly, as if it were a collection of  articles from Self or O magazines.  Though the premise of the book is timely in our increasingly uncivil times, and the organization of the book intelligently highlights some of the key themes that pertain to the concept of "nice," The Meaning of Nice makes liberal use of anecdote, aphorism, personal confession, newspaper clippings, and comments from respondents to the author's online Nice Survey which gives the book a breezy, conversational tone that ultimately dilutes the power of its message.

Oliver's project is to unpack the concept of "nice" and to foreground it as an essential social skill, and yet highlight how unstable a definition of "nice" actually is.  At its heart, niceness appears to be a first derivative of kindness, but Oliver establishes that niceness is not a stable, unitary personality trait, but is, in fact, always a relational concept. Whether one is perceived to be more or less nice is always a function of what an other perceives as nice -- be it kindness, friendliness, attentiveness, generosity, or any other related trait.  "Nice" can always only emerge in relationship.

Oliver underscores how "nice" is also very situationally and contextually specific as well. What is nice in one setting may not be at all nice in another, and what one person finds to be nice, another may find to be cloying and annoying.  "Nice," therefore, is not necessarily what you are, but what you do.

Oliver rightly highlights the Renaissance-era contributions of Castiglione, as he introduced the concept of sprezzatura, the seeming effortlessness and nonchalance by which the most effective men and women of the Court were able to deploy their deep context-specific knowledge to be charming in the right way at the right time with the right person.

The Meaning of Nice importantly highlights several life domains where niceness matters the most -- relationships (with other people in general, and with intimates and family members in particular), in the workplace, and on-line (where ideas of niceness become increasingly more difficult to negotiate).  The Meaning of Nice will be a good first-step resource into these topics as Oliver provides helpful but perhaps too lengthy summaries of some of the major figures who have come to prominence in the mainstream media in their consideration of the hard science of soft skills.  Oliver presents Judith Martin in her guise as Miss Manners, Martin Seligman and his work on Positive Psychology, Daniel Goleman and his work on social and emotional intelligence, Helen Fisher and her contributions on love, lust, and relationships, and Sherry Turkle on the possibilities and perils of technology.  

Oliver references Linda K .Thaler and  Robin Koval's  2006 business book, The Power of Nice, but entirely overlooks Ron Shapiro's identically titled, 1998 effort on business and negotiating, The Power of Nice, which was one of the first, and still one of the most enduring, contributions to the neo-civility literature.  More troubling, however, especially in a contemporary work like The Meaning of Nice, which features the word civility prominently in its subtitle, is the complete absence of consideration of P.M. Forni's canonical trilogy on civility: Choosing Civility, The Civility Solution, and The Thinking Life. Forni's work offers a similar overview to Oliver's book of the landscape of civility and goodness today and historically, and also offers wise, practical strategies to enhance one's purposeful poise and relational competence.  Rather than simply reviewing the literature and highlighting the questions, Forni's work reflects a truly original contribution to the neo-civility discourse in his deep and lucid arguments in favor of the place and power of civility in contemporary culture.

The Meaning of Nice reminds us that happiness is not a mood state or personality trait, but rather a capacity for flourishing and an engagement in life.  Since the quality of our life depends on the quality of our relationships and the quality of our relationships depends on the quality of our relational skills, a primer is often necessary to remind us of the common sense strategies to enhance those skills that are, sadly, not always common practice.  The Meaning of Nice offers just such guidance in a style that will make an afternoon on the beach fly by, as well as point us to additional resources if we wish to explore any of its topics more deeply.  The Meaning of Nice is helpful but not heavy.  As our world becomes more diverse, complicated, and urban, having the skills necessary to get along will be more and more essential, and The Meaning of Nice returns us to Rome, the birthplace of the rules of civitas, and the origins of the contemporary neo-civility movement.

 

© 2012 Dan Buccino

 

Dan Buccino is a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, supervisor, and Assistant Professor in the Adult Outpatient Community Psychiatry Program at The Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.  He was a Founding Member of The Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative.


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