It’s Not “Midwest Nice” to Break the Rules

Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens has a great routine about 4-way stops in the Midwest. Midwest drivers are so nice and obsequious that they’ll endlessly wave the other guy on at the stop sign, even when they were there first and have the right-of-way. Like all good comedy, it’s funny because it’s at least a little bit true. As a small-town Midwesterner, I can vouch for the authenticity of the joke. In the past month I have had three separate Midwest stop sign incidents, in which the other driver, having the right-of-way, attempts to yield and wave me on, out of turn. Now I’m a proud Midwesterner, but maybe I’m just not that nice, or maybe something just really bothers me about people not following the rules. When this happens to me, I like to point at the stop sign, trying to let the other driver know there’s an established set of rules and I, having aced driver’s education, expect you to follow them. Indeed, one time I actually rolled the window down and shouted “I have a stop sign!” and insisted the other driver proceed (she didn’t even have a stop sign in this case—it’s worse than Berens knows!)

The last time this happened I got so agitated that I had to pause and reflect on why this form of rule-breaking bothers me so much. After all, the other person is just trying to be nice- “Midwest nice.” Doesn’t that reflect well on the folks in my part of the country? I had an epiphany in the car, though—I realized that the attempted “niceness” was actually irritating because it disrupted my strongly-founded expectations about what should happen based on a very clear and well-known set of rules. I felt like Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski: “Am I the only one around here who gives a (expletive) about the rules?!” (Don’t worry, I did not come close to threatening the other driver). Simply speaking, the other driver’s action, though well-intentioned, was not nice in its outcome. It was irritating, it led to confusion and delay which, though minor, were nonetheless irritating. Rules are meant to be followed, not arbitrarily set aside on a whim for the perceived benefit of a stranger. We could have a good-faith argument about whether a particular rule is just and proper, but in cases where the rules are obviously fair and designed to generate smooth social interactions among strangers—like stop signs—not following the rules is an anti-social act. 

Then the larger revelation struck me: we are living in an age of excessive “niceness” and attempts by well-meaning people to just be nice are increasingly leading to rule-breaking and societal decay. The stop sign thing is emblematic of a larger problem. True, stop sign yielders are generally harmless, so maybe I should calm down about it. But in other cases, when people choose to not follow the rules in an attempt to be nice, the consequences can be more than merely annoying, they can be downright dangerous.

Examples of excessive niceness are all around us and range from mundane and mildly annoying, to potentially deadly. Here’s a brief list, I’m sure you can think of some yourself:

  • parents want to be nice to their kids, so they withhold harsh discipline and their kids become unruly brats
  • teachers try to be nice to students so they don’t give low grades or critical feedback
  • efforts to “stop the stigma” associated with bad behaviors like drug, alcohol, or porn addiction, because stigmatizing people (literally, marking them with disgrace) is perceived as mean
  • waiving the “rules” of family life, for instance expecting parents to marry and fully commit to raising their children, because it’s judgmental
  • suspending meritocracy to help the “disadvantaged” have access to better jobs or careers

This last example is most worrisome, and is cropping up in DEI-inspired programs that water down or eliminate competency requirements for the sake of increasing representation of disadvantaged groups. Many commentators on the right are raising alarm about such efforts afoot in the airline industry to “diversify” their pilot corps. If the easing of competency standards is happening, and there’s ample evidence to back up the stories, we could be looking at deadly consequences when under-trained, under-qualified “diversity hires” make fatal errors at the controls of a passenger jet. 

So yeah, maybe we should rethink “niceness.” Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against niceness, I’m just against taking a good thing too far. In statistics there’s a categorization of errors that may be helpful in explaining the “too nice” problem. A Type I error is a false positive—establishing causal effect when it’s not true, for example assigning effectiveness to a drug when it really had none, and the clinical trial results were just random chance. A Type II error is a false negative—finding that the drug was not effective when it actually is, but perhaps the clinical trial was improperly calibrated to capture its true impact. 

Being needlessly mean—acting the jerk—is a Type I error.  You lash out at your wife or kids for a harmless mistake. The bad attitude and angry outburst is not warranted, you should not have ruled in favor of your anger. This problem is usually easy to spot and remediation is seldom controversial—no one likes a jerk, and we all know one when we see him. Being too nice, though, is tricky—it’s a Type II error. You are in the right to yell, or maybe just use harsh language, because the other person misbehaved and deserved a social sanction. But most of us don’t like confrontation, and it’s often easier to just put on the nice face, not call out the other guy’s bad behavior, and just slink away. This is the path of least resistance. I’ll admit that I’m guilty—I am non-confrontational and probably have let too many bad actions slide.  

So what’s to be done about the excessive niceness epidemic? I’m thinking about setting up seminars on optimal anger: “Hi, I’m Tyler and my love language is tough love. Don’t like it? Get over it!” Kidding aside, it’s tricky. There are no easy answers, and as the greatest living economist Thomas Sowell has so eloquently stated, “There are no solutions, only tradeoffs.” All I can ask as an economist is that people acknowledge the problem—it’s just as possible to be too nice, as it is to be too mean. To paraphrase Martin Luther, you can fall off both sides of the horse. It can be bad to be not nice; it can be bad to be too nice. The trick is to find an optimum, to balance the tradeoffs between the problems. Too mean (Type I error) is usually obvious, so the key is to critically assess all our actions and strive to recognize when we might be sliding into the “too nice” Type II error. Sternness has its place. If insisting on following the rules makes me appear jerky to my Midwest cohorts, so be it. If that’s the price of living in a world where the rules work to the benefit of all, I’m willing to pay it.  


Tyler Watts is a professor of economics and management at Ferris State University.


David Henderson
Apr 24 2024 at 3:35pm

Your post is nice. 🙂

Apr 24 2024 at 5:36pm

Says the Canadian!

Anyway, totally agree with the stop sign thing. It just causes confusion and slows things. However, I think you are making too much of a dichotomy in your other examples (besides imposing some of your own value judgments). Rather than seeing things as choice between discipline or being nice or shame vs stigma we should look at what will actually change outcomes. There are times with some kids eg where harsh discipline notably doesnt work but is actually counterproductive, making things worse.

Having been management for a long time totally agree that too many people avoid confrontation. It can turn ugly but if you hire good people and are not an A-hole about it the outcomes can be pretty good. Helps if you understand your people too. If you have highly educated, over-achieving types yelling at them or harsh actions seldom achieves much. A bunch of enlisted pukes? Might be the right thing in the right situation.  Either way if you manage to show some kind fo respect and arent mean it has a chance of going well and more importantly get positive results from your worker. I have had a lot fo people leave the office in tears and then in follow up (if you are going to have a confrontational meeting always follow up) get a thank you.


Richard W Fulmer
Apr 24 2024 at 4:28pm

There’s another error that combines a false negative with a false positive response. For example, my cat misbehaves so I kick my dog because the cat scares me. I think that that is at least some of what’s behind the anti-Israeli / antisemitic reaction to Oct. 7. Hamas committed horrific acts of terrorism so we kick Israel because we know Israelis won’t try to behead us and Hamas terrorists will.

I’ve seen it in grade schools where teachers punish students for defending themselves against the class bully. The bully (or, more likely his parents) would cause problems if he were punished, so the teachers work to keep other students from “provoking” him. In effect, they take the path of least resistance, trading injury to innocent students for a bit of relative peace for themselves.

Apr 24 2024 at 4:38pm

The thing is you aren’t following the rules on the stop sign thing, you are making the classic error of confusing legality with morality, i.e. “it’s good because it’s legal”.  The community norm in Wisconsin at stop signs is to yield, the fact you can’t follow that norm under the guise “but the written law in driver’s ed or the rest of the US says other” is rule breaking by you, not them.

On the last bullet I generally agree with you as implemented but that’s only because we applied it to black drag queens. I can tell you as a person on eighteen months of unemployment and counting my “disabled” and “veteran” status completely loses to the point of irrelevance to my “middle age white straight male” flags which put me at the bottom of the barrel.

I don’t generally have a problem with government welfare programs disguised as make work programs as the optics are simply there to provide the person meaning or placate the public about perceived free rider problems, my complaint is more the hierarchy of categories.  I.e. there is value in helping a blind person find meaningful employment even if it’s 100% reimbursement by the USG on the back end, the fact a fully blind person loses out on a job the are fully capable of doing to a fully visioned competitor whose only “issue” is they happen to have chosen to be homosexual is the problem.

Jon Murphy
Apr 24 2024 at 5:07pm

The thing is you aren’t following the rules on the stop sign thing, you are making the classic error of confusing legality with morality, i.e. “it’s good because it’s legal”.

No. he isn’t.  There is no judgement about which rule is better here.  Rather, Tyler is pointing out conflicting rules and the problems they lead to.

Comments are closed.


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Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens has a great routine about 4-way stops in the Midwest. Midwest drivers are so nice and obsequious that they’ll endlessly wave the other guy on at the stop sign, even when they were there first and have the right-of-way. Like all good comedy, it’s funny because it’s at least a litt...

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