• Sherry P. Johnson

The Problem with "Nice"

Long before the death of George Floyd here in my home state, I've been bothered by the words, "Minnesota Nice." I was warned about it when I moved here from Wisconsin, back in 2001. I knew what they meant, though. Every time I crossed the state line as a child, there was that subtle cultural shift. A certain way that my working-class, rust-belt mannerisms just didn't fly here. Where my autistic glee and directness was just... too much.


I thought about "Minnesota Nice" again when I moved to Seattle and encountered another phrase, the "Seattle Freeze." I was absolutely stunned to discover just how closely these two cultures mirrored each other: the passive-aggression, the pragmatic politeness, the fortifications built to prevent new relationships with outsiders. I even found a parallel between Minnesotan and Seattle body language. The discussion topics might be different, but the implicit rules about indirectness were uncanny:

Often what we mistake as a preference for civility...for space-giving, for deference, for "nice"ness...is really a strong desire for comfort: Please don't bother my calm. Please let's not get too carried away. Please let me just get back to my nice day with my nice old friends in my nice house with my nice family. We can be around one another, but please don't expect our encounters to change things. There are deep, cultural roots of this in Minnesota that can be traced back to Scandinavian norms, but this isn't just a Minnesota phenomenon.


"Nice" just doesn't cut it right now. Our nation is long past the need for us all to change. No where was I taught this better than in reading A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. While this series of essays highlight the ways white-centric cultures exclude BIPOC, it has a lot to teach white folks everywhere. When we worship at the altar of "niceness," or even a sanitized, emotionless "civility," we render ourselves completely unmotivated and unable to change the systems of oppression our nation has relied on for far too long.


Releasing "niceness" has far-reaching implications for how we lead, facilitate, and train. This is still unfolding in my practice, but I'll share some questions for you to ponder as you design your next agenda, strategic process, or curriculum:

  • In any group agreements you use, is there room for practicing dissent or expressing hard truths?

  • What are your internal narratives or attitudes around strong emotional expression in group settings?

  • How do you typically respond to strong expression of emotions in group settings?

  • When sharing content or information, how do you typically respond when someone disagrees with what you're sharing?

  • How do you define "niceness," and in what ways have you prioritized it as a goal? How about "civility"?

  • What behaviors aren't welcome in your organization or community? What might that mean about the people who might not feel welcome?

These questions go deep into our cultural assumptions around what we owe one another, as well as how that question shifts around the history behind relationships, organizations, even nations. What do we owe our disabled colleagues when our building might not even be accessible? What do we owe our first-generation-college colleagues or neighbors, who may have never learned cultural rules some of us take for granted? What do we owe our femme and nonbinary colleagues who have been spoken over and underpromoted? What do we owe our Black colleagues and neighbors when they have been overpoliced, or their ancestors impoverished by Jim Crow laws or enslaved to build white American wealth?


...And how nice do we expect them to be when that context has gone unacknowledged?


Perhaps the least we owe one another is to release some of our expectations about how emotions are expressed in public.

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