If you can't be nice, at least don't be a dick.

Every once in a while I hear someone say "if you can't be nice, don't be a dick."

This phrase is usually muttered with the intent of setting a minimum level of acceptable behavior to avoid a meltdown in social interaction when one member of a group is in fact, frequently a dick.

Unfortunately, this phrase sends the wrong message and sets low expectations. It leaves plenty of room for passive-aggressive and other anti-social behaviors.

Let's break the phrase down into its two components:

If you can't be nice

"If you can't" absolves the aggressor of responsibility to control their behavior. Combined with "be nice" it says "we, as a group, absolve you of the responsibility to be nice." What kind of expectation does this set? It says to the aggressor, "I can continue running rough-shod over this group until I get my way."

At least don't be a dick.

Again, what kind of message does this send? It says "being an overt dick is not allowed, but all these other passive-aggressive behaviors are."

Human beings being human beings with oscillating moods, setting a low bar of "don't be a dick" allows a chronic aggressor to center their oscillation just above the "dick/not a dick" line. They'll still be a dick half the time, and probably just a jerk the other half. This is still toxic and still capable of ruining a group.

Instead of "don't be a dick", the target should be "nice by default."

"Nice by default" means I should center my oscillation around being nice. My natural oscillation will go into "dick" territory on occasion, but my average behavior will be far more pleasant than someone who centers using "don't be a dick."