In Madison, Paying the Nice Tax Costs Us

In Madison, Paying the Nice Tax Costs Us
Rebecca Ryan

Right speech is the Buddhist precept of keeping gossip to a minimum and speaking your truth. Accurately. With loving-kindness.

“If something is not true, beneficial or timely,” Buddha says, “don’t say it.”

Seems simple, right?

It’s harder than it seems.

Ask any man whose wife has asked, “Do these jeans make my butt look big?” If your wife’s butt doesn’t look awesome in those jeans, how do you tell the truth accurately and with loving-kindness?

It gets even trickier in high-stakes situations. How do you conduct a performance review with a well-intentioned coworker who just isn’t making the cut, or respond to an African American child who asks, “School would be easier if I were white, wouldn’t it?”

In Madison and the Midwest, we have an aversion to right speech, especially the kind that’s difficult, painful or could make others feel uncomfortable. I call it the “Nice Tax.”

We pay the Nice Tax when things take longer or cost more money because no one spoke up earlier. (I’m lookin’ at you, opportunity gap.) We pay the Nice Tax when a leader who was once highly effective but whose skills are now outdated is enabled to continue leading because no one wants to upset the apple cart. We pay the Nice Tax every time we keep quiet because it’s easier to go-along-to-get-along rather than call things out.

The Nice Tax is deeply cultural.

In October 2013, Peter J. Rentfrow, Samuel D. Gosling and co-authors published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates.”

According to their analysis, which included five independent samples totaling more than 1.5 million people, Wisconsin falls in the “Friendly and Conventional Region.” We have relatively low levels of openness (the trait most closely associated with innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship), low levels of narcissism and moderate to high levels of extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon comes to mind.

Rentfrow, et. al., conclude, “taken together, the characteristics of this psychological region suggest a place where traditional values, family, and the status quo are important.”

Their paper helps explain why Midwesterners are willing to pay the Nice Tax; we want to defend the status quo. We don’t want to seem self-important or disagreeable. We want to be liked.

But how does the Nice Tax impede our innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship? How does being nice get in the way of being effective? And how do we treat those who don’t have “nice” things to say about Madison? Paul Soglin aired some of Madison’s issues at a famous Downtown Madison, Inc. meeting and was labeled and an ineffective, “emotional leader.” A few months ago, I suggested that young professionals make career tradeoffs to live in Madison and was told to leave town.

If something is true, beneficial and timely, we shouldn’t shy away from saying it. We must have the courage to practice right speech. It may not be perfect speech, it may not be glamorous speech, but if we’re speaking from a place of good intention, we need to speak up. And our co-residents must be willing to listen, to reflect, and consider the implications.

Right speech matters. Words shape our reality and, in turn, our culture. Words can injure. They can also build up. They can obfuscate or clarify.

In Madison, we have a choice: to practice right speech and address our challenges, or continue to pay the Nice Tax, which hurts our ability to innovate and piles on social, equity, financial and reputational debt for Madison’s future generations.

Rebecca Ryan is a pathetic Buddhist and passionate Madisonian. Catch her in her own words at