N

iceties are important. Even the word itself requires a level of consideration. How is it pronounced? Is that middle “e” silent, as in “nice,” or does it make itself known, so that the plural form can be pronounced sensibly? (And what is the plural of nice?) Yet the thought that needs to go into the pronunciation of this word is nothing compared to the thought and intention that must go into its practice.

 

What Are They?

Let’s begin with a definition of our term. Webster’s defines a nicety as a “small detail, especially pertaining to polite or proper behavior.” The word refers to the quality of being nice and reflects a refinement of character that can address a matter requiring care or tact.

The niceties of speech are those little words whose sole purpose is to show sensitivity and respect. Niceties would almost seem to be small, irrelevant details that you could easily do without — except that when you skip them, bad things happen.

Breindy: “Levi, the baby needs his bottle. It’s on the kitchen counter.”

Even without an audio recording, you probably discerned that Breindy likely spoke in a straight, declarative tone, because Breindy’s sentence contains only the bare facts without any of the niceties.

A monotone voice could have carried these words, rendering the sentence a sort of mini-command (“Levi, get the bottle and give it to the baby.”). The question is, without the niceties, how does this communication sound to Levi?

Levi: “I understand that there’s lots to do when you have kids, but I feel like Breindy is always issuing commands. It doesn’t make me feel great being around her. I’m pretty sure my parents had plenty to do as well, but I never heard this sort of thing at home. Both my parents asked each other to do things — they didn’t tell each other to do them.”

 

Asking vs. Telling

Asking is one of those little niceties that makes family communication feel warmer, kinder, more respectful, and more loving. Honey, would you mind getting the baby his bottle? It’s on the kitchen counter.

Of course when it comes down to it, this sentence means pretty much the same as, “The baby needs his bottle.” However, it sounds so much friendlier. There’s no “boss” and no “lackey” here, just two companions making a home together. And this grand shift can be achieved with the smallest effort. The addition of that little social detail — the question format — makes the communication so much nicer.

“Chesky and I make it a point to ask each other to do things instead of tell each other, and we almost always add a little affectionate name at the beginning of the request. For instance, I’ll say something like, ‘Hon, would you mind helping me in the kitchen?’ instead of ‘Would you mind helping me in the kitchen?’ Those little ‘sweeteners’ make the requests more loving.

“We use this same style with our kids, even though we have the ‘right’ to just tell them what to do. We find it makes them far more cooperative. ‘Sweetie, would you please hang up your coat?’ sounds a lot more inviting than ‘Please hang up your coat.’ I don’t think anyone likes to be told what to do. If they don’t cooperate, we do get more firm, but we find that they usually respond really well to instructions that contain those little niceties.”

 

The Silent Nicety

“My sister-in-law taught us a great trick. She hardly ever asks my brother Dov to do anything and yet he’s constantly responding to her! Here’s what she does: If she wants to get him to take care of a fight the kids are having, she’ll just say something like, ‘I think the kids are fighting — do you hear that?’ Or if she wants him to take the garbage out she’ll say, ‘Oh, dear. The garbage bag is full.’ When he picks up the hint and does what she wants, she lavishes praise on him. I think that’s why he’s so eager to please her.”

We see that the nicest of niceties may be simply dropping a delicate hint. Doing so allows a spouse or child to rise to the occasion spontaneously. Reinforcing that spirit of generosity helps guarantee that it will occur again and again. Whether it’s a question, an endearment, or a hint, it is clear that niceties gain cooperation while simultaneously cementing relationships. And isn’t that nice? (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 596)