Sweetness and spite: You can be too nice, you know. Emma Cook attends a course teaching the vituperatively challenged to hurl a well-deserved insult

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The Independent Culture
Half a dozen strangers sit in a circle, smiling politely. One young woman sits down then leaps up. 'I'm terribly sorry,' she says to somebody on her left, 'were you sitting here?'

These, apparently, are 'people pleasers' doing what comes naturally - smiling, apologising and accommodating others' wishes. This weekend they have paid pounds 150 to do something they never dreamed possible - spend 48 hours being nasty.

'If you come into a house with muddy feet and there's a doormat, you'll just wipe your feet on it,' course leader Jo Ellen Grzyb says. 'If you're nice, people will wipe their feet on you, because that's your role.'

'The Nice Factor' is a two- day course designed by Grzyb and Robin Chandler, who co- run a workshop company called The Impact Factory. Both are recovering sufferers of excessive niceness. 'I've been nice all my life,' Chandler confesses. 'I see what other people want before they want it themselves.'

Psychotherapist Grzyb, a New Yorker, is a more unlikely victim. 'Around men, I never spoke my mind,' she says. Although there's nothing wrong with 'nice' behaviour, taken to extremes it can be irritating and even manipulative. ' 'Nice' people are so bland,' she says. 'They won't make a decision or tell you what's on their mind.' As Chandler says: 'The disease of niceness cripples more lives than alcoholism.'

To begin, we are instructed to compliment the person to our right and offend the one to our left. At first everyone is anxious, offering tepid criticisms: 'Charlotte, I think that jumper really suits you. Amanda, your hair looks a bit unbrushed today.' Then Chandler throws in a bit of malice. 'What a shabby man you are with that sad haircut,' he says to his neighbour. The sad haircut turns to a meek-looking woman: 'What's it like being so short?'. She reproaches me. 'Did you think about what you put on this morning? Obviously not.'

The put-downs are less than acerbic, but even so they allow us to experience anxiety about how our neighbours will react. 'You might have some difficult feelings doing this,' Grzyb says, 'but it's an indicator things are going the right way.'

Now that we are generally au fait with confrontation, they introduce some real conflict. We must stand up to those characters we dread in everyday life - party bores, noisy neighbours and door-to-door salesmen.

Amanda role-plays the party guest from hell, on a life-or- death mission to chat till dawn about pensions. David is the victim-host. 'I really have to go to bed soon,' he suggests. Amanda remains thick-skinned: 'But I'd love another cup of coffee.' David asserts himself. 'You're welcome to make your own. The fact of the matter is I'm going to bed now.'

Many would happily have told the Amandas of this world to get lost hours ago, so why do the Davids find it so hard? The answer lies, as it always seems to with psychotherapeutic explanations, in our past.

'We weren't born nice,' Grzyb says. 'Parents and teachers were uncomfortable with our behaviour and so we learned to adapt.' As adults, she says, we're too eager to please. 'How many people here say 'Sorry, I'm not in' on their answering machines? You wouldn't recognise me from how I used to be,' she says. 'Now I'm direct and forthright. I just don't pussyfoot around like I used to.'

The Nice Factor, a weekend course ( pounds 150) at The Impact Factory, Hornblower House, 16b St Paul's Place, London N1. (071- 226 1877)

(Photograph omitted)