I’m not saying I’m a terrible person. I do my best not to actively harm others, and some have even claimed to find me charming. But I’ve been known to roll my eyes. I’ve been less than astonished to hear myself described as temperamental, dismissive, and even cold. I will put it this way: I’m a not-terrible person who often enjoys going off on people/things, in print and face-to-face. But sometimes, afterward, I feel bad.
So when my friend Fatehbir Kaur — part of the teacher-training team at Los Angeles’s Yoga West — invited me to join her in a practice of being nice for 40 days, I sensed an opportunity to save myself from myself. It sounded — and I’m hate-using this next word — empowering. Also scary: Nice? Do I even like anyone nice?
“It’s actually about speaking ‘medium-soft,’” Fatehbir clarified. She quoted the explanation of the late yogi Bhajan, founder of Kundalini Yoga: “For 40 days, speak softly, medium-soft. At night when you go to bed … you will write down how many times you goofed.” This practice was offered through the Kundalini Yoga community, with about 50 people participating on Facebook, so there would be support.
Fatehbir and I then unpacked what medium-soft meant. Yes, of course if you had children you were allowed to discipline them. (I have none but decided I would be happy to step in and discipline others.) Yes, disagreements were allowed, as was sending back fish that was frozen in the middle. But saying things like “Her highlights are so ‘90s,” and screaming things like “Where the fuck are my fucking keys?” or “What the fuck did you do with my fucking keys?” — basically, being an unconsciously negative asshole — were out.
“But what if someone’s an unconsciously negative asshole to me?” I asked. “What about recourse?”
“It starts tomorrow,” Fatehbir said, and we went our separate, yogic ways.
That afternoon, for motivation, I consulted the work of one Dacher Keltner, a psych professor at Berkeley and the author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. He was, naturally, very pro-nice, and promised results like “people trust you more; they have better interactions with you; you even get paid better.”
I called him to find out more. “Despite all this stuff about self-interest and individualism, there’s mounting data that kindness is actually more personally useful,” he said. “It helps your social status, attracts romantic partners, and helps you to be much healthier and happier in general.”
All I heard was “personally useful.” I was ready.
At 11:40 p.m. — I was starting at midnight — I noticed that my boyfriend looked happier than he had in months. “You do realize,” he said, “that you’re not going to be able to say anything.”
I realized that. I also realized I only had 20 minutes to follow him around pointing out things that weren’t clean. Then I fell asleep.
Alas, the first words out of my mouth the next morning were “God, it’s fucking hot.” The next, upon checking my phone, were “Can’t this fucking loser just leave me alone?”
“Write it down,” my boyfriend said. Then he left to hang out with a friend who definitely did not inspire medium-softness in me. I was good while he was gone. But the moment he returned, he mentioned this person, and I said, “It’s nice of you to spend time with someone everyone dislikes so intensely,” which I thought might be considered acceptable. It wasn’t.
For the entire first week, I proceeded to screw up royally pretty much all day. I wrote in my journal: “NUMBER OF TIMES I GOOFED — INFINITE.”
I was starting to worry, so I contacted Keltner, and asked him why talking shit seemed compulsive. “There’s fairly compelling evidence that it’s simply more arousing to complain than to just say things that are nice,” he said. “Bad things simply capture more attention than good things.”
I considered the ghastly, likely possibility that my whole personality was merely a result of wanting attention. And then I talked to Penny Pexman, a sort of sarcasm scholar at the University of Calgary, whose analysis was even more grim. “Complaining, being skeptical, and being critical are all ways of trying to show people you’re smarter than they are,” she said.
All this time I’d thought I was entertaining and insightful and I was really just a pretentious, self-satisfied know-it-all, seeking to be noticed at any cost. As disappointing as this was, it seemed beneficial to realize that I wasn’t just an asshole for fun. I was an asshole for a reason. So instead of just trying to swap in medium-soft habits for my usual ones (which wasn’t working), I decided to touch the void — to target the roots of my behavior. To ask myself things like, when I insulted people, what kind of mood was I generally in? For example: Normally, if I went to a party and didn’t know anyone, I’d feel a little socially awkward and generally uncomfortable. So when I saw someone I knew, I’d try to get their attention by being funny, which often meant making a cutting remark about someone we had in common. What can I say? It was a habit! But knowing this — when I don’t know what to say I break the ice by being mean, because I think being mean is a way to create intimacy, and hey, maybe it is, but for these 40 days, it’s not on the menu — I could interrupt the pattern. I could tell myself: “You’re feeling awkward. You’re at risk of not being medium-soft! Try not speaking.” And I would maybe approach the person I knew, but then just say hello and smile and either wait for them to talk or ask a polite question, like “How do you know the hosts?” or “What’s your favorite flavor of Yogi Tea?”
Did this thrill me? It did not. But it did work.
True to my boyfriend’s prediction, I found I was talking so much less. Others on the medium-soft Facebook forum reported the same. “I find that I listen more and am less eager to force my opinions on others,” one woman wrote. “I am starting to realize that 75 percent of what I normally say is kind of unnecessary,” Fatehbir told me.
I asked her how she defined necessary. “Oh you know,” she said. “Helpful. Useful. Informative. That sort of thing.”
But we both found, naturally, that by talking less, and by thinking more about what we said instead of saying whatever sprang to mind, we “goofed” less. One night, a woman approached me and, unsolicited, began to say awful things about a friend of mine. I was just about to rip this woman a new one when I remembered my medium-soft project. So I simply said, “That has not been my experience with her,” and changed the subject. Disappointment came off her like mist off of a lake, and I realized that even if you take a perverse joy in conflict, it can be even more pleasurable to avoid it. In other words: Who needs recourse when moral superiority is so readily available?
The next challenge on my path to medium-softness was eliminating sarcasm. Trying not be nasty or aggressive or to complain felt hard. Trying not to be sarcastic felt impossible. I got in touch with John Haiman, a professor at Macalester College and the author of the 1998 book Talk Is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language. In the most earnest tone of voice I had ever heard in my life, he assured me that it would indeed be extremely difficult to stop being sarcastic. “Sarcasm is the default mode of communication in our culture,” he said. He said his students do an exercise where, for 24 hours, they attempt to say only things that are true. “They report feeling very uncomfortable,” he said. “Because unless you’re alone in front of the bathroom mirror, you are performing.” Yes, that was exactly it! Want to feel deathly boring? Talk to people without using any sarcasm. Really. Try it. It’s like trying to walk with your feet tied together.
I told Haiman I was trying to be nice for 40 days, which, naturally, restricted my use of sarcasm. “Forty days!” he exclaimed. “You’re really going out into the desert.”
Comforted by his empathy, I decided to just spend a day paying attention to sarcasm without necessarily trying to curb my own. It wasn’t that I was giving up the challenge; I was just accepting that it was more difficult than I thought it would be. Lo and behold, I noticed that the amount of sarcasm used by those around me (and me) on a daily basis was staggering. Pexman explained it pretty well: “Sarcasm makes conversations less predictable. That’s why you can get so bored talking to earnest people — you know exactly what’s going to happen next. But sarcasm is also disruptive, and a real barrier to conversational intimacy.” This was so true. I noticed that sarcasm — my own and others’ — tended to appear in moments of discomfort or insecurity, like if a conversation got too serious, or if people were being introduced and didn’t know what to say to each other. I noticed that Gee, people are often really uncomfortable and insecure. As sarcasm began to sound less like white noise and more like an alarm, I used it less. Not never, because I don’t work for Preserve. But less.
If only sarcasm were the end of it all. But no, in the quest to be nice, there was always something else, and the next something else was gossip. One evening, after a fairly medium-soft day, I got a private message from a friend complaining about a mutual friend. Everything would have been fine if I could have honestly written “that has not been my experience with her” — but it had been! Surely saying so was like being medium-soft. I was being honest. I was validating another human being’s experience! I was helping!
Thank God for kindhearted academics doing research to rebrand gossip. Gossip, according to Matthew Feinberg, a professor at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is not merely a spiteful exchange between two people in bad moods; it is, instead, “the widespread sharing of reputational information that tracks individuals’ past behaviors in mixed-motive settings in ways that can help sustain cooperation in groups.” Feinberg went on to say that although gossip is bad sometimes, its positive function is to help to protect others from “anti-social or exploitative behavior.”
I checked back in with Fatehbir, hoping she would agree that gossip was absolutely an acceptable component of medium-soft living.
She did not. “I think in most cases gossip is just slander,” Fatehbir said. And I could not claim that the conversation I’d engaged in had protected me from “anti-social or exploitative behavior” when it had in truth only protected me from about three minutes of boredom. Despite Fatehbir’s disapproval, I have to admit I cheated a little in the gossip department, especially after I read an article that called gossip life’s “informal handbook on how to behave.” Maybe gossip was to my cruel behavior what red wine was to my alcohol consumption: the healthy, expert-approved indulgence.
On my 32nd day of medium-softness, I again called Fatehbir — who, even if she was super-sick of me, was obligated for another week not to say so. She confirmed that, indeed, she was not necessarily medium-soft every single second of the day, especially in her teaching. “I can’t coddle people,” she said. “When someone is about to put a hand on a hot burner, I have to yell.” But she also said that she hadn’t gone into this practice hoping to change her personality. She just wanted to get better at controlling her behavior — to be able to choose how she was going to react rather than simply reacting. “For me, doing this was about training myself to think before speaking, to ask, is this going to have a consequence that I don’t intend? Does this statement add anything useful to the discussion or your life?”
My Berkeley buddy Keltner put pretty much the same thing a different way. “Great advances in science, and brilliant literature, have been wonderful results of our critical faculties. We just have to be careful not to over-apply them.” In my case, that meant that instead of trying so hard to be fascinating, I was forced to be more fascinated, to ask a lot more questions, and to listen more.
I told my boyfriend I was going to keep doing the practice past the 40 days, which was good, since most of what I’d done so far was just write down the ways I’d failed. “I feel like I’m so uninteresting, though,” I said. “So I apologize for that.” He said that he hadn’t noticed. Then he said, “I know you think people only love you because you’re funny, but maybe if you stopped being funny you’d see that people loved you anyway.” Which was very sincere and nice. I wanted to make a joke, but I said thank you, and then stood there feeling awkward.