I recently had a conversation with a friend concerning a character in a TV competition who was sweet, very honest, and nice. Well, at least that’s how I viewed the character. He was kind to fellow contestants and loyal to those he had made a connection with. Every other contestant knew for sure where they stood with him because he was as real and raw as possible. On the other hand, my friend viewed this same character as boring and going an extra mile just to be liked-calling him a people-pleaser. That was a first for me, because how?! Or is this the perfect depiction of the 6 and 9 image, where one sees a 6 yet another sees the same image as a 9?
Okay, I get it. There is a very thin line between being nice and people-pleasing. Sometimes the differences are blurry and one could easily cross the line. We, of course, don’t deny that people-pleasing isn’t the healthiest way to lead a life yet why do we always assume that when someone is nice, there’s more to them (secret agenda) or nothing about them (mediocre or too boring)?
When a man is so nice he is considered weak. When it is a woman, she is lacking intelligence and a voice. When it is a husband, he is pretentious or too good to be true. When it is a wife, she is too submissive and unempowered. When it is an employee, he/she is a people-pleaser and when it is a leader, we consider all their nice and kind acts to be PR stunts. Is it that we have completely lost faith in humanity that we no longer believe in good when we see it?
When Ghaith of Qalby Etmaan (a charity progran about a man traveling around the world helping people of all kinds) came to Kenya and the episodes were aired last Ramadhan, it was quite hilarious yet sad how the Kenyans who were approached reacted. You could see the fear and skepticism on their faces. Some were very hesitant to respond to the questions Ghaith was asking, some refused to receive the envelopes being handed and some used quite the harsh tone in their conversations. I get it, this is Kenya. We’re living through tough times where a woman cannot trust her daughter with her husband, where people are kidnapped, people are killing other people in panic for fear that they’re kidnappers, dead bodies are being unearthed from the backyards, bullying and cruelty are so normalized, and sometimes well covered in the name of jokes and comedy. We see it every day on Twitter, other social media sites, and the news. We are so used to being bullied, harassed, conned, and manipulated even by our own police and leaders (especially them!) that we can’t trust a person asking for direction. We can’t trust a stranger shaking our hands. We can’t trust someone asking us who we are. When someone stops us on the way we’re already defensive and alert. Consequently, this has made us not trust any form of kindness or compassion handed to us because our ‘fight or flight’ response is already on. We tend to think that everyone is out to harm us. I truly get it…but does that mean we have given up on kindness entirely?
Most often than not, nice people are greatly misunderstood, taken advantage of, undervalued, ignored, and taken for granted. People would sort for all ways to push their buttons just to frustrate them or make them react, just to provoke them so they can stoop low to their level. But here’s the thing though, and this is the main difference between being nice and people-pleasing; Being nice means you do good to people and treat others with kindness without expecting anything in return. You see the world as a community so you offer your love, care, and support unconditionally. You forgive easily and avoid conflict in order to stay in harmony with others. You do it because you have neither the time nor the energy for drama nor chaos… not because you lack self-esteem or cannot stand up for yourself, or are not intelligent enough. People-pleasing on the other hand is a form of dependency which lacks boundaries. You do good and give to others, without being able to say no, because you expect something in return; it could be validation, attention, or acceptance. People-pleasing is a form of transaction; I will help you but you need to validate me in return. You become a doormat by allowing people to treat you badly in pursuit of their love or attention. Being nice and kind is about self-expression and having true altruism; I will help you regardless of whether you will appreciate it or not.
The stereotypes that come with being nice are many. Ask any nice person you know out there they’ll tell you; if we were expecting something in return then being nice is barely rewarding in this life. Human beings can be so ungrateful, insensitive, cruel, and irritating. Yet we still keep doing it, because we want this world to be a better place filled with more kindness and compassion, and we feel happy when we’re able to do so in our own small ways.
Kindness is especially hard when those on the receiving end are not appreciative of our actions; this could even be our own family members. But then it goes back to our intentions, ‘why are we doing this?’ Is it to seek someone’s approval or because we genuinely want to express our love and concern for them?
Our religion highly recommends being nice, kind, and compassionate. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘Whoever gives up telling lies in support of a false claim, a palace will be built for him in the outskirts of Paradise. Whoever gives up an argument when he is in the right, a palace will be built from him in the middle (of Paradise). And whoever had good behavior, a palace will be built for him in the highest reaches (of Paradise).'” It also explicitly states in another sahih hadith that a strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than a weak one, even though both are good. This shows that Islam doesn’t recommend that a Muslim lacks a voice or dictates his self-worth only based on how people praise, love, or validate him. He shouldn’t let himself be taken advantage of or be oppressed for the sake of pleasing human beings or seeking their love. Granted, we all want to feel loved in this life but it should never be our primary goal or at the cost of our dignity and respect. We are expected to be as kind and nice as possible but it should always be for the sake of Allah and not fellow human beings.
Harold Kushner once said: “Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.” And I think that should be a mantra for us to adapt in our lives.
Answering our question, being too nice is not necessarily being too phony. I think we should give kind, nice people the benefit of the doubt (as our religion requires from us) for their actions unless proven otherwise. Of course, I am not telling you to hop into a car with a random stranger (Especially during these scary times, may Allah protect us!) but I am saying, sometimes we judge other people too harshly based on our own fears and skepticism and that could be unfair for the other party. I believe one’s intentions always end up revealing eventually. If someone seems nice, take them as they seem. If they’re not, time will tell for sure!