readier to listen, warmer, less prickly

“Friendship begins, and loneliness can end, when we cease trying to impress, have the courage to step outside our safety zones and can dare, for a time, to look a little ridiculous.” (Pg.118)

The Fool tarot card is the number 0 of the Major Arcana, which stands for unlimited potential. Therefore it does not have a specific place in the sequence of the tarot cards. Its location is either at the beginning or the end of a series.

The Fool tarot card depicts an innocent soul walking joyfully and excited into the world. He is gazing upwards toward the sky and is seemingly unaware that he is about to topple over the cliff into the unknown. He carries nothing with him except a bindle containing all his worldly possessions. The white rose in his left-hand shows purity and freedom, as white would suggest. The explosive decal on his clothing represents potentiality, and the mountains behind symbolize the long journey and challenges ahead.

Why We Don’t Really Want to Be Nice

Setting out to try to become a nicer person sounds like a deeply colourless and dispiriting ambition. In theory, we love niceness, but in practice, the concept appears to be embarrassingly anodyne, meek, tedious and even sexless. Being a nice person sounds like something we would try to be only once every other more arduous and more rewarding alternative had failed.

Our suspicion of niceness may feel personal, but it has a long history, bearing the sediment of at least four major cultural currents that we should try to understand:

1 The Legacy of Christianity: Nice but Weak

For centuries, Christianity was the single most powerful force shaping our intellectual horizons, and it was profoundly committed to promoting niceness to the world. With the finest aesthetic and intellectual resources, it sang the praises of forgiveness, charity, tenderness and empathy. But – unfortunately for niceness – Christianity didn’t simply leave it there. It also suggested that there might be a fundamental opposition between being nice and being successful. Successful people, believers were told, were not, on the whole, very nice people – and nice people were not, on the whole, very successful. It seemed that applicants to the Kingdom of Heaven had a choice to make: niceness or success. This dichotomy deeply tarnished the appeal of niceness to anyone with the faintest spark of healthy, worldly ambition in their hearts. Christianity might have been striving to enthuse people about niceness, but by connecting it up so firmly with failure, it created an enduring feeling that this quality was chiefly of interest to losers.

2 The Legacy of Romanticism: Nice but Boring

For the last 200 years, we have been heavily influenced by the cultural movement known as Romanticism. For the Romantics, the admirable person has been synonymous with the exciting person: someone intense and creative, mercurial and spontaneous; someone who might upset tradition and dare to be forceful, or even rude, while following the call of their own hearts.

The diametric opposite of this heroic figure was, for the Romantics, someone mild and respectable, guarded and conservative, unflashy and quiet: in other words, the boring person. Here, too, there has seemed a radical choice to be made: either fiery, unpredictable and brilliant; or meek, conventional and in bed by nine.

3 The Legacy of Capitalism: Nice but Bankrupt

To this charge sheet of niceness, capitalism added another indictment; presenting an interpretation of the world as a deeply competitive arena in which all companies were committed to forge continuous battle for market share, in an atmosphere marked by ruthlessness, determination and impatience. Those who succeeded had to know how to destroy the competition and handle the workforce without a trace of emotion. A nice person, unwilling to squeeze wages or outwit an opponent, would end up either bankrupt or in the mailroom.

4 The Legacy of Eroticism: Nice but Unsexy

A final, more personal, association hangs over niceness: the belief that the nice can’t be sexually desirable, because the qualities that make us sexy are bound up with the possession of brutal, domineering, confident edges at odds with the tenderness and cosiness of the nice. Once again, an awkward choice presents itself: between the pleasant friend with whom to go to the park and the dangerous companion with whom to disappear to the dungeon.

Despite all this, the truth is that we like niceness very much and depend upon it even more. It is just that our true memories of niceness have been suppressed by a culture that unfairly makes us feel unintelligent for lending niceness our approval. All of the qualities we have been taught to think of as opposed to niceness are in fact highly compatible with and, at points, highly dependent upon it.

However much we are committed to success, for long portions of our lives we are intensely vulnerable creatures wholly at the mercy of the gentleness of others. We are only ever able to be successful because other people – usually our mothers – have given up a good share of their lives to being nice to us.

As for excitement, this too can only be a phase, as all those who have ever made real contributions to humankind know. Quiet days, domestic routine and regular bedtimes are the necessary preconditions of creative highs. There is nothing more sterile than a demand that life be constantly exciting.

For its part, capitalism may reward competition between firms, but it relies on collaboration within them. No company can function long without trust and bonds of personal affection. Much to the frustration of bosses, money cannot guarantee the commitment required from employees in all the more sophisticated areas of the economy; only meaning and a spirit of companionship will.

Lastly, the sexual thrill of nastiness only ever properly entices in conditions of trust. However much we may fantasise about a night with a ruthless conqueror, it would be alarming to wind up with an actual example. We need to know that someone is fundamentally kind before an offer of a rope and the sound of swear words become properly interesting. So much of what we value is in fact preserved by niceness and is compatible with it. We can be nice and successful; nice and exciting; nice and wealthy, and nice and potent. Niceness is a virtue awaiting our rediscovery and our renewed, unconflicted appreciation. (Pg.13)

14 The Ultimate Test of Your Social Skills

It can be easy to imagine that we possess reasonable social skills, because we know how to maintain conversation with strangers and – every now and then – manage to make a whole table laugh.

But there’s a test far sterner than this, surprising in its ability to trip us up: the challenge of having a pleasant time with a child we don’t know. Theoretically speaking, this should be easy. We were all kids once. We know a great deal more than they do and – as far as they’re concerned – hold all the cards: if we felt like it, we could buy 26 packets of biscuits and go to bed whenever we wanted.

Yet, in reality, it is strangely hard to feel at ease around children we’re not already close to. Imagine being invited around to your boss’s house for lunch and being left alone at the kitchen island with her moody ten-year-old son, or being introduced into a playroom with two shy five-year-old girls, the children of a friend. We may swiftly become bewilderingly tongue-tied and inept.

The reason is that children are unable to do any of the normal things that ease social encounters between adult strangers. They don’t ask polite questions about what we’ve been up to. They have no feeling for our lives or what might be important to us. They don’t talk about the news or the weather. They can’t usually tell us much about themselves and their enthusiasms. If we ask them why they like a toy or a film, they tend to look blank and say they just like it, that’s all.

So, for all their sweetness, children present formidable and fascinating barriers to social fluidity – which is also why they are the greatest tests of one’s mastery of the arts of charm and kindness.

Across cultural history we have a few moving examples of accomplished adults getting on well with children. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) remarked that he found ‘nothing more notable’ in the life of Socrates (the man who more or less began Western philosophy) than that he was exceptionally gifted at playing with children, and would, especially in his later years, spend many hours playing games and giving them piggy-backs. ‘And it suited him well,’ added Montaigne, ‘for all actions, says philosophy, equally become and equally honour a wise man.’

Henri IV was one of the rare cases of a high-status adult who took care to cultivate kind and playful relationships with children.

Henri IV, king of France from 1589 to 1610, is remembered as one of the most benign French monarchs who also happened to be very sweet around children. On one occasion, famously painted by Ingres (recreating the scene two centuries after its occurrence), the Spanish ambassador came to see the king and found him pretending to be a horse for his children to ride on. Rather than interrupt the game immediately, Henri kept the ambassador waiting a little while, sending out a strong signal of where he felt sensible adult priorities should sometimes lie.

What is touching in these cases is that the adults did not insist on using their obvious, socially endorsed, strengths around children. Socrates did not opt to deliver lectures about metaphysics, and Henri IV did not sit impassively on a throne discussing how to rule a kingdom. They put aside their well-known virtues and prestige in order to make themselves vulnerable – as one must whenever friendship is at stake. They dared to lay themselves open to attack by those who might have described them as ‘silly’ or ‘undignified’, implicitly understanding that friendship can only emerge when we let the fragile, unadorned parts of us meet without artifice the fragile, unadorned parts of others.

Furthermore, these two grand men knew how to find common ground with creatures who were, in so many respects, entirely alien to them. Cosmopolitans of the mind, they imaginatively searched for what unites rather than what divides people and were able to locate, somewhere within their characters, the joys and excitements of someone who has only been on the earth a few years.

The socially adept know that we contain (even if only in trace, embryonic forms) all human possibilities within us, which they draw upon to feel their way into the needs and points of view of strangers. Even if they happen to be confident, they will know how to be in touch with the more timid version of themselves; even if they are financially secure, they can mobilise their own experience of anxiety to enter the inner world of someone beset by money worries; even if their careers have not gone well, they can, without bitterness, find a part of themselves that would love to prosper and use this to engage warmly with someone whose professional life has gone very well indeed.

The moves that these grand people made with children are ones we should all learn how to make with anyone, of whatever age, who we want to bond with. But it is particularly useful that these were grand people who made neighing sounds, for what so often holds us back around others, and makes us cold when we deep down long to be close, is a fear of a loss of dignity. Friendship begins, and loneliness can end, when we cease trying to impress, have the courage to step outside our safety zones and can dare, for a time, to look a little ridiculous. (Pg.118)

“On Being Nice: This guidebook explores the key themes of ‘being nice’ and how we can achieve this often overlooked accolade. (The School of Life Library)” by The School of Life.