Over the past week, I've started watching the Netflix show Love, created by Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin. It's not the kind of show I expected to be bingeable: a pessimistic dramedy about unhappy, self-destructive people, with its funniest moments doubling as its most excruciatingly awkward.
But I've found myself enjoying episode after episode, even as I'm digging my fingernails into my thighs through the most uncomfortable scenes. And while there are a lot of elements worth watching, I think what's most riveting to me is the characterization of co-creator Paul Rust as Gus.
Gus is a nice guy. That's evident from the show's opening scenes, in which he sweetly snuggles his girlfriend in bed and docilely agrees to buy the rug she wants instead of the one he'd prefer. But five minutes into that first episode, his niceness is being presented as the reason his girlfriend wants to break up. She starts to scream, "You're too nice," then corrects herself: "You're not nice! You're fucking fake nice, which is worse than being mean!" During a post-breakup confrontation in episode two, she elaborates on the theme: "Your niceness becomes an assault. Your kindness is pure fucking hostility."
From the beginning, then, it's set up that Gus' good-natured and accommodating demeanor has the potential to become self-serving, passive-aggressive, and suffocating. But it's not until episode five, the one I just watched, that the show begins to dig into what "nice" really means.
This episode follows Gus on a date with Bertie, cheery Australian roommate to his new friend Mickey (played by Gillian Jacobs). As their dinner date begins, Gus and Bertie reiterate to each other how "nice" they both are — that's why Mickey has set the two of them up. They try gamely to stay positive through early setbacks like a nearby restaurant patron's loud and boorish conversation, or Bertie shivering under the blast of an air-conditioning vent. But Gus' focus on these details threatens to overwhelm their actual date. By the time the entrees arrive, Bertie's dashing to the bathroom to text, "He's nice, but def no second date. Thank ya Micks :)"
Except she accidentally texts it to her date, Gus, instead of their mutual friend Mickey. Once he knows she wants to bail, Gus drops the act: no more worrying about whether Bertie's steak is done enough, no more polite conversation, instead switching into a rude persona in which he denies climate change and suggests they go to a strip club after dinner. At the end of the date, when they're recovering from the fiasco of dinner by laughing over fro-yo, Gus openly chafes against being called nice. "Maybe I'm not nice," he says. "Like sometimes, if a waiter's really bad, I'll tip them 30 percent, so they go, like, 'I don't deserve this.'"
Bertie jokingly calls him a "scumbag," but remains unconvinced: "I just think we're two nice people who gave it our best shot and that's the best we can do," she shrugs.
Part of Gus' irritation about being called nice is that the woman he really likes is Mickey; he thinks she's pigeonholed him as "nice" and foisted him off on her roommate as a passive way of letting him down. But this episode also begins to peel back the layers of what "nice" means for Gus in general. He's chipper, helpful, and unfailingly polite. He's socially awkward but friendly, and wins people over quickly. He backs down easily from confrontation (that is, until he's pushed to explode, as we see during his breakup with his girlfriend in the first episode).
None of that comes across as a calculated act; it's not that Gus is just pretending to be nice and is really a monster. It's that his niceness is a habit he's been practicing his entire life. He's so used to thinking of himself as a nice person that he's never had to confront his tendencies to be entitled and self-involved.
Niceness, as a quality, has lost a lot of credibility in popular discourse. "Nice guy" is now a widespread term for men who feel entitled to date women because they're supposedly chivalrous. The upshot: If someone insists he's a "nice guy," he probably isn't. Meanwhile, here in Minnesota, any conversation on topics ranging from what it's like to be a Twin Cities newcomer to racial disparities in our region is bound to include the phrase "Minnesota nice." Whether it always carried connotations of chilly passive-aggressiveness, or whether that was a secondary meaning added by someone like Garrison Keillor, "Minnesota nice" is a term used with rueful sarcasm. Minnesotans are polite and friendly, but exclusionary to outsiders. They're hard to get to know beyond surface-level pleasantries, and unwilling to acknowledge serious and unflattering truths. With both "nice guys" and "Minnesota nice," niceness is at best a facade, at worst a weapon.
I've been thinking a lot about niceness lately, even before seeing it explored on Love. On one hand, I despise empty ceremony, and the fact that the burden of niceness has so often been on women. (That's the real story of "nice guys" — if a woman doesn't automatically fall for a guy just because he's baseline well-mannered, she's labeled a bitch.) On the other hand, a lot of people seem to be hurrying gleefully to be the opposite of nice. I mostly see this on Twitter, where I follow a ton of writers and media professionals: People often snarkily comment on their peers' writing by using out-of-context quotes and mocking them personally. The push to use language more thoughtfully and inclusively has of course been a positive trend, but it can sometimes result in a rush to scrutinize, demonize, and pile on. And there's an element of reductionist thinking: If a popular writer or other figure does something dumb, people are quick to announce that said person is bad and has always been bad.
What's often so toxic about the Internet is that "niceness" is no better. "Nice" is the cute toddler video that turns out to be an ad, the viral post that reduces a complex issue to feel-good clickbait, the claims that we shouldn't criticize anyone who's just trying to make art, the calls for civility that really mean "Stop calling me out."
For me, though, interpersonally? Nice is what I wanted to be. Maybe a little deeper than nice: kind, warm, friendly. Good-natured. Likable.
Heather Havrilesky's "Ask Polly" advice column wasn't the first time I'd been encouraged, as a woman, to dump niceness, but it was the most specific and persuasive. Havrilesky's recent collection, How to Be A Person In the World, touches on the idea of niceness for women in a couple of responses. Here's an excerpt:
The strange irony of being a very sensitive person who wants to say, "I don't like that," or "You hurt me," is that you tend to take it too personally when other people say, "I don't like that," or "You hurt me." You feel attacked, and so you conclude that the other person must be "wrong" to say something so direct, so critical, so negative. So you avoid asserting yourself the way other people do, because other people will surely encounter your assertiveness as injurious, the way you have.
Here's the thing: Being nice is worthless if you're just going to feel resentful about it in the end. You might as well just be outspoken and state your needs from the outset. Because as much as people resent assertive women, they resent disingenuous, overly friendly, secretly furious women even more.
I relate to Love's Gus because I see myself in those Ask Polly paragraphs. I get quietly angry when someone blows me off in a social setting or dismisses an idea of mine at work. When I'm feeling self-conscious, I'll obsess over how I'm coming off instead of focusing on the person I'm with. I say "please" and "thank you" and "sorry" ad nauseam, but I have yet to have a real conversation with the woman who's been ringing up my coffee for nearly a year. (Having just gone out to dinner with friends, I cringed in recognition as Gus and Bertie thanked their server about six times in a single interaction.)
Like Gus, I'm someone people would probably describe as "nice," but have I ever made a gesture that genuinely touched someone? Have I given my parents the attention and thoughtfulness they deserve during the brief times I'm home in Illinois? Have I said the kind and encouraging words my friends needed to hear? Do I give everything I can to help my friends succeed, or do I just show up when it's convenient? If I stopped being diligently polite, would I, like Gus, come across as self-centered and entitled?
The answer to that last question is probably yes, but I think I can change by starting small. Since reading that Ask Polly passage, I've been in a couple of social and work situations where I've spoken up instead of letting other people talk over me or remaining shyly silent. I've argued for positions that turned out to be wrong, made dumb jokes, interrupted people. But I've also felt more confident, given advice and sympathy that I think were actually useful, and shared hearty laughs with people I'm getting to know. By training myself to be a little less nice, I believe I can reach the next step beyond nice. I want whatever that is to be real and big and genuine — and I think I can get there.