The other day I was watching a documentary called 'Everything is Copy'. It's about Nora Ephron, a journalist and screenwriter who made her name writing films such as 'When Harry Met Sally' and 'Sleepless in Seattle'. There's a moment in the movie where one of her friends says something along the lines of "Nora could be quite mean". Ephron had friends though, many of them. She was loved by everyone she knew. Regardless of this, they unanimously agreed: Nora was a little bit mean.
Now, I'll admit that I did things in reverse. I watched the documentary on Ephron before I watched any of her films. I'll be honest, I didn't really know who she was. So I followed the doco with a couple of her films, and loved them. She's Woody Allen without the dubious personal life and unending self-obsession.
The woman had friends, had success, had love, had family. Her assertive, no-bullshit attitude made her my kinda girl. Also, she wrote some bloody good screenplays. An instant fan, I suddenly started thinking to myself... is there anything wrong with being just a little bit mean?
Mean, harsh, unkind. The opposite of nice. No-one ever aspires to be the opposite of nice, especially not women. To some people, being nice is important. But not me. Perhaps it's because I am not overly nice myself. I'm nice enough, sure. I'm polite, I'm courteous, I have been known to be kind or sweet. But I would never be described as 'nice'. I don't go out of my way to be nice to everyone I meet. But why?
Here's my theory. While they say that being nice doesn't cost a thing, niceness, on its own, doesn't get you anywhere. Nobody gets really excited about seeing a person that is nice. Nobody gives you a promotion for being nice. People rarely make a really funny joke that is super nice. Out of all the qualities that I can think of in a person, niceness is the most disposable. And besides, it's f**king impossible to make any progress in the world by being nice.
I am delusional enough to want to be extraordinary, and to me, being extraordinary means breaking rules, defying convention, hurting feelings, bruising egos. You can't change anything by being nice; you wouldn't be able to because everyone would already agree with you. Being nice is doing things the right way. Nice is the absence of an opinion, it's the opposite of interesting. Nice is agreement; meanness is not.
Being mean is akin to being critical and having a critical mind. It's the result of appraising a situation, undoing it in your mind and picking fault. That, in itself, is not a nice process. It requires you to see the negative, or, at the very least, the thing that could be improved, dissecting it and putting it back together in a way that you believe is a better way. That means that you have to, even innately, tell someone that their idea could be better, and that you have come to a more appealing solution.
Italian chef, Massimo Bottura, caused offence to the native population of Modena when he started messing with their traditional cuisine. Diana Vreeland was a legendary fashion editor with a reputation for having a caustic sense of humour. Charles Bukowski writes expletive laden, sometimes misogynistic, alcohol and drug fuelled poetry that I believe is the literal antithesis of nice.
I could list fabulous, successful people that didn't give a damn about whether they hurt people's feeling all day long. And it's not about being famous, it's about being different, being opinionated, and following through on the vision that comes with that.
Sometimes I think something is only mean because it's true. Does meanness equate to calling people on their bullshit? Or pointing something out that's a bit too harsh for anyone else to mention? Or is it just being brutally honest?
Meanness can't be confused with nastiness, which is being deliberately vicious; or spitefulness, which is motivated by disdain. Being mean is not trying to ruin anyone's life. It's just being frank without regard for the emotional fallout. Whatever you do, get your motivations right. Think of meanness as a kind of mini-ruthlessness, to be sprinkled on the right situation to aid in the achievement of the desired result.
Meanness can also be used for the purpose of self-preservation. I often don't go to social engagements because I simply can't muster the energy to go along. That's mean, sure. But I generally don't suffer the social burnout that my friends do. I leave conversations on Facebook, I don't put in for group birthday presents, and I will happily 'pencil someone in' for a drink in six weeks time just to avoid being booked out every night of the week. I have also done the ultimate mean thing -- I've unfriended people in real life, and I'm much happier for it.
I strongly believe that if you bend over backwards trying to make everyone happy then you will go mad, quite literally, and you will have absolutely no time to make yourself happy. Meanness becomes a necessity for survival.
Often in life, one needs to be the opposite of nice. And people might be hurt, but they will get over it. Especially if they can see that there's a reason for it. Implementing calculated meanness into your daily or weekly routine might save you time, frustration, mental energy or resources. It might even help you to get ahead.
Besides, if you're not nice to everyone, all the time, then the one time that you are nice becomes infinitely more meaningful.
This post first appeared on July 16, 2016.