We’ve heard it said about certain people: “He’s such a nice guy.”

I believe “nice” comes from the Latin for “ignorant”. Now it’s the compliment you pay when you can’t think of a specific compliment. It’s a picture of someone who is inoffensive in every way.

There are three reasons people might think you are a nice person. The first is that you might be too fearful to be who you are. Every day you put on the bullet-proof jacket of docility, tighten the chinstrap on the helmet of mediocrity and crouch under the parapet of timidity to shelter from the artillery fire of popular opinion. (If white middle-class males between the ages of 18-55 dominate society so thoroughly, why can’t they hold an opinion contrary to public sentiment without being the target of misarsenic insults?)

The second reason we might be thought of as nice is because it’s easy to be courteous, friendly and positive when life is pleasant and everything’s going our way. But take away the security of a regular income, good health, a steady home life, good friends and a loving family; replace that with poverty, sickness, uncertainty, friends and family who reject us, and then see how nice we are. There’s a recent film whose title eludes me, but involves four parents whose sons have brawled. They start being polite and civilised – nice – but as the film proceeds and the situation isn’t neatly, quickly and easily resolved, their refined, professional veneers crack and they become more aggressive and abusive. Underneath all of us is an atavistic savage who will do almost anything to have our needs met.

The third reason you might be considered a nice guy is because you are a genuinely nice person. To grow up as a genuinely nice person, I think depends on how easy your early life is, and to a degree on your personality. If you haven’t been belittled or abused or suffered some other form of rejection; if other people treat you well because you’re wealthy, powerful, famous and/or good-looking, of course you’ll grow up to be nice, because you’ve won’t have had a lot of abuse in your life. Conflict is one thing: it can be between social equals, you can resolve it amicably, and still grow up quite balanced. Abuse is unequal and one-sided; it damages our opinion of ourselves and how we have to act to survive. Abuse leaves scars that deform us.

If, like most of us, you’ve been hurt by others and hurt others, how do you become a genuinely nice person, not an emasculated milksop? If you can’t keep your head when all about you are losing theirs – not an easy task when you’re growing up and identity is formed by adults who have their own emotional issues – the only way is to take the time to exorcise your inner demons. And that’s another story.