Nice is cultural

Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché;

I work with a guy named Tony who is manipulative in an annoying subtle way that goes up my butt sideways. For instance, if he is offered some coffee and doesn’t want it, he won’t tell you that. Instead, he’ll say “oh. not right now; maybe later.” But he has never ONCE had it later; he hates coffee.
He will do this too if you ask him whether he’s attending the company picnic- “oh, I’d really like to, can I get back to you later?” Only he never does; he hates company picnics. If he’s at a cocktail party and a waiter offers him a canapé from a tray, Tony will take one and then hide it, uneaten, behind one of the potted plants.

I don’t know why this annoys me so much, but it does. I confronted him on it once and his response was puzzled hurt: “you have to understand, I was raised a conservative New Englander…we don’t like to offend anyone.”

To me, it just seems like endless manipulations and an inability to admit how he really feels. It annoys me more than my other workers because Tony has a bit of a crush on me but naturally would never admit it- instead, he maneuvers to be near me and makes up stupid reasons to stop by and ask questions he doesn’t really want the answer to.

My friend Maura says I should be flattered he likes me and his shy school boy methods are cute. I just want to slap him. I can’t stand people who just won’t come out with it.

What do I do with Tony? I’d like to confront him, but he’s never admitted what he’s up to, so what the heck would I be talking about? My assumptions?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

What you observed is dead on true. It is cultural: “manipulations and an inability to admit how he really feels.” However, this is not exactly the intent of your tormentor. It is a form of cultural niceness, as he said- not to offend anyone.

This behavior drives my wife nuts. She runs a nonprofit which is dependent on volunteers. People always say they would love to help out but they rarely follow through. It’s simply a matter of their being nice in the moment. They have no intent to actually do anything. This is the same as when people say, “I’ll call you.” But they never do; they had no real intention to. They were trying to be agreeable and not to offend in the moment.

This phenomenon is cultural but it is in bad form. It is always better to set boundaries up front rather than agree to something you don’t actually agree to and then have to back out later. The upset, confusion, disappointment, and miscommunications caused by trying to be “NICE” are never worth it.

There are cultures that encourage a more direct approach; they are considered rude and offensive by those which try not to offend. Sometimes it can seem like a breath of fresh air to hear direct words.. But be warned: it is difficult to change from one approach to the other, because it is deeply engrained in the psyche. A breath of fresh air can get cold as miscommunications mount. This mis- understanding of each other’s intent has killed many relationships.

Speak and listen with clarity,

Dr. Brilliant Cliché

Granny says: although I admit I prefer it to an armed invasion, trying not to offend is an approach that can set my teeth on edge too. However, the way I see it, this guy not only doesn’t want to offend anyone- he also doesn’t want anyone to know who he really is. He won’t let them know what he likes and dislikes, he won’t reveal his true reactions. That’s not being NICE. That’s being sort of a sociopath.


About Dr. Brilliant Cliché

Dr. Brilliant Cliché and the Granny Dr. are a fictional web presence and advice blog. Together we offer a joint perspective that is deep but not academic, entertaining but not fluff, and educated yet street smart. By joining the internet community we hope to share thoughts and stimulate insightful conversation around pressing issues that affect us all. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. (This is not a site for therapy nor does it intend to replace medical or other professional care. ) You can leave comments here or email The Dr. at and don’t forget to like us on facebook. Our facebook page is Dr. Brilliant Cliche
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4 Responses to Nice is cultural

  1. Lori Marcotte says:

    Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliche, I remember the day you taught me the difference between “nice” and “kind”. It was a great moment, and I want to say, “Thank you”.

    • Dear Lori,

      Thank you! And yes Nice is enabling and comes from a point of subservience to the culture; it helps maintain the status quo. Kind on the other hand is reciprocated and lifts both the giver and the recipient up. Kind has boundaries and expectations where as nice is just an aversion to suffering. Nice doesn’t look at the consequence that when one does too much others do too little. Kind is about balance, teaching, role modeling. Nice is about appeasement. A nice person is invisible where as a kind person is present.

      I am honored to have been a help in your transition from nice to kind.

      Dr. brilliant Cliché

  2. Ken Bryant says:

    At first, I thought the best solution was to stop offering things to Tony (coffee, invitations to work parties) since he claims he doesn’t like them anyway. He’s a very interesting character who even has a distorted view of what a New Englander is known for. New Englanders are not typically known for being concerned about how others want to be treated. On the contrary New Englanders are quite off-standish, and not concerned about what others think.
    Tony needs an incentive to be more honest. He is manipulative and loves to draw people in just so he can have the attention of putting them off. This is perhaps his perception of what being sociable means.
    Here’s what I would do with Tony. I would explain that he will be responding to some presumptions and be expected to respond without questioning. I would put a cup of coffee in his hand and tell him you’re going to stand right there until he finishes it? I would sign him up for the office party without asking his consent. Sound counterproductive and undignified? Let’s hope Tony sees it hat way and appropriately objects to such treatment. Not surprisingly, Tony may actually consider complying with these situations without debate. But if he does decide to reject such treatment, he will be nervous at first because he will be breaking new ground.

  3. Dear Ken,

    Yes, it would be a good learning experience for this guy to be put on the spot and forced to follow through with one of his “polite” manipulations.

    Dr. Brilliant Cliche

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