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If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

I wrote about my dad yesterday, and today I’m thinking about my mother.

She was very fond of this old-timey saying:

If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

I know, I know…pure Pollyanna

but those words actually sank in.

Now, I was NOT an especially obedient kid, not at all inclined to listen to any adult’s lessons, but I found that this particular piece of advice had real, practical value.

Saying only nice things to people made them treat ME nicely. They liked me more, were more generous and tolerant towards me, wanted to be around me. I made friends; I influenced people.

I’m trying to dilute the sugar in the message by admitting to a healthy dose of pragmatic self-interest. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?…sickly-sweet, perhaps, but it’s also a policy that gets results. It works.

And it’s definitely become a part of my personality. If I stand back and listen to myself, I can hear Me hesitating for a microsecond before I pronounce¬†anything…because I’m first running it through my internal Is-this-a-nice-thing-I-am-about-to-say-? meter.

I think it’s mostly a good way to move through Life, stepping carefully through the delicate gardens of other people’s egos.

It’s certainly been key to my success as a tutor. Students who already feel failed and resistant need messages that are carefully crafted for maximum gentleness and support. I’m scrupulous about how I say everything. I never say: You were wrong; I say: Hey, check that answer again. I don’t say: You’re not applying yourself; I say: Working on this material a little more every day sure would make a big difference.

Notice, though, that with my students I only adhere to the first half of the policy. I can’t “not say anything at all” about their academic issues. I have to find nice ways of saying difficult things. That’s very, very different from avoiding talking about those things.

In our personal relationships, my mom and I wound up with the same problem: We’d hold in and push down the un-nice things we felt, until, finally, we’d explode…and then, wow, like Pandora’s Box all the suppressed emotions (grotesque from festering in the cramped darkness) would fly out and cause terrific damage.

My mom’s gift to me was a mixed one. I’m still working on unpacking it.

[photos at Kensington Gardens in London]


If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2011). If You Can’t Say Anything Nice. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Dec 2011
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