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When is nice too nice? One author explores that question in her new book

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I get told that I'm nice a lot. And if I don't think about it too hard, I kind of like that. I mean, who doesn't want to be nice? On good days, it means I'm easy to get along with. I'm warm. I'm approachable. I'm someone you want to hang out with, I think. And on not-so-good days, I think to myself, am I too nice? Am I easy to take for granted? Why can't I be, like, intimidating for once?

Being a nice person is an identity I have worn for many years. But sometimes, it can feel constraining, like I'm doing it just because that's what people expect of me, which is exactly where Mia Mercado finds herself - an Asian woman from the Midwest who's thought long and hard about where agreeability has gotten her and how much her niceness is performative. She's written a whole compilation of essays called "She's Nice Though: Essays On Being Bad At Being Good."

Mia Mercado joins us now. Welcome.

MIA MERCADO: Hi. I would listen to you say my name all day.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MERCADO: Such a wonderful voice.

CHANG: You're so nice, Mia.

MERCADO: Thanks. Yeah, come in with the compliments.

CHANG: (Laughter) Well, you know, you say that when people first encounter you, a lot of times they just sort of assume that you're nice. What do you think it is about you that makes people assume that?

MERCADO: That is one of the main questions that I had going into this book.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you this because I ask myself a lot the same question. Where do you think this drive to be nice comes from for you personally? I mean, I do think it's fair to say that some of it is about gender, but not all of it, right? Like, why do you think you are nice?

MERCADO: Oh, for me, it definitely stems from a deep desire for everyone to like me. I desperately want people to like me, and I don't - obviously, that's not a unique thing. I think a lot of people want to be liked. That's, I guess, kind of part of the human condition. But often, I do that at the expense of myself. And just now starting to question like, OK, well, am I being nice and also being myself? - which I think for a long time I didn't think that those two things could exist at the same time. Like, I had to be agreeable and go along with what someone else said and just nod and smile rather than, you know, voice my own opinions if they say something that I disagreed with or even if we were going to do something that I was like, no, I don't really want to do that.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, it does raise really serious questions about where this so-called niceness ends up taking you, right? Like, there's this section in your book where you talk about giving yourself over physically to men out of fear that you'll somehow hurt their feelings otherwise.

MERCADO: Right.

CHANG: And to be clear, we're not talking about nonconsensual physical encounters. We're not talking about violations on your person. What we're talking about is something more like, say, a kiss that you decide to go through with, but a kiss that doesn't feel quite mutual on your part. What's the connection there to being nice, in your mind? Why'd you write that in your book, this essay?

MERCADO: Yeah. In the past, I've thought that disagreeing with someone is the same as being mean, even if the thing that I'm disagreeing with has to do with my own body. For example, in that instance where I went on a date with a guy that was very kind, I enjoyed talking to him but didn't feel any kind of romantic attraction. When he wanted to, like, end the night with a kiss, I thought, well, he's being kind. He wasn't being inappropriate. I should just do this thing. I should just do the thing because that is what I have been taught is the reward for a man who - men are generally not expected to have the sort of, like, softness that women are and, like, the - to create space, like, for emotional vulnerability. And I was like, we had really good conversations. Might as well give this guy a kiss.

CHANG: I have totally been there.

MERCADO: Yeah.

CHANG: Totally, Mia. Do you have any regret over some of those physical encounters that you wrote about?

MERCADO: The regret that I feel has less to do with any one specific person or any one specific event and more feeling regretful that I spent so much time really worried about other people's comfort instead of my own and sacrificing that.

CHANG: I know that there are a lot of women who can relate to what we're talking about. And I'm wondering, what would you like men to think about - or anyone who dates women, what would you like them to think about in case the person they're with is just really preoccupied with trying to come off as nice or considerate in these moments, these physical encounters?

MERCADO: When I started writing that piece - it came after a conversation I had with my sister where we were, like, just recounting all of the guys that we had, like, just given space to and given time to that we were like, they sucked. They were bad. They were not nice people. And they were not nice to us. But still, we didn't want to leave a sour taste in their mouth, so we just kind of went along with it. And I was talking to my husband about that conversation. And I was like, how many people have you kissed that you were like, eh, I don't really want to kiss them? He was like, none, zero.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MERCADO: And I was like, what? What do you mean? There's never been a situation where you were like - or I'm like, not even, like, as far as that, but, like, you went on a date with somebody that you didn't really like? He's like, no. Why would I do that? And I was like, why would you do that? Why would I do that? That's a good question.

Yeah, I think, rather than trying to get at some sort of answer at, like, well, what are men supposed to do? How are - even if we ask and she says yes, maybe she means no. I think the solution is rarely like, oh, here's the thing that you need to do differently. It's more just like, maybe you need to listen a little more.

CHANG: I mean, all of that leads me to this larger question that you pose in this book, and that is - let me just read it for you. (Reading) Are you actually nice if a part of your motivation is for others to see you as such?

I read that question, and I guess my question back to you, Mia, is, why wouldn't that count as nice? I mean, obviously, there's a difference between fake nice and manipulative versus just wanting to be a better person and looking for external feedback from others on how to be that better person, right?

MERCADO: Right. Oh, I definitely agree that if you are trying to be nice regardless necessarily of your motivation, if the end result is in favor of kindness, I don't think that that's a bad thing. And I absolutely don't have the answer as far as, are you a good person if you're motivations are to be seen as a good person? But just for my own self-evaluation, I feel like I need to understand why I'm doing something in order to feel like I understand myself. And I feel like everyone understanding themselves better helps us understand each other.

CHANG: I couldn't agree more. Mia Mercado's new book is called "She's Nice Though: Essays On Being Bad At Being Good." Thank you so much for being with us. It was so nice to talk to you (laughter).

MERCADO: It was really nice to meet you.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: We're inseparable.

MERCADO: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.