my favorite things

Why Comedian Aparna Nancherla Wants You to Stop Calling Her 'Nice'

In our column My Favorite Things, interesting people tell us about their features that receive the most compliments. In this installment, Aparna Nancherla talks about why hearing "you're so nice" makes her want to be mean.

Monica Heisey

Monica Heisey

Image via Aparna Nancherla

Aparna Nancherla is a 32 year-old writer and stand up comedian. She previously wrote for Totally Biased with Kamau Bell, is great on Twitter, and recently joined the writing room for Late Night with Seth Meyers. Last week she featured alongside Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and Hillary Clinton in a Funny or Die video about Dunham's interview with the potential presidential candidate. Her friendly face, low-key stage persona, and deep, burning hatred of conflict means she's gifted most often with that quietly backhanded compliment "you're, like, sooo nice."

BROADLY: So what's your most complimented thing, Aparna?
Aparna Nancherla: I often get complimented for being a sweet or nice person. I know this sounds very generic—trust me, I know that very much. But I think I get it because I am generally agreeable and accommodating to people until they know me, after which I morph into a huge demon. Not really, but a tinge more nuanced. I have had this trait as long as I can remember, whether by choice or not. I remember we got superlatives in second grade and even then, I got Sweetest, before I even really knew what it meant. I still am not sure I know what it means. I had no idea what I had done to earn it, but I felt like I really just hung back and let people project it onto me. It's funny because sometimes people are described as a ray of sunshine, and I don't think that's me. I am very neurotic in my mind and definitely capable of plenty of darkness, so I think some of it is just a mask I use for the world. I am like that quote about ducks where I am appearing to sail smoothly on top but paddling furiously underneath.

Dark! What do people say to compliment your niceness?
You don't generally get the most specific compliments about being a nice person, in fact, sometimes it's more people trying to push your buttons. But you do get people generally being warm back at you, which is a welcome balm. I do tend to be a people pleaser and while I wonder if some people think nice people are kind because of some inner compass, sometimes it's more an intense fear of being a social outcast. Oops, I am not sure if I was supposed to spill the beans about that. I will ask my therapist about it next session.

I am generally agreeable and accommodating to people until they know me, after which I morph into a huge demon.

When was the last time this happened to you?
I was trying to give my opinion on something and I tried to do it in a diplomatic way and the other person declared me the "nicest person." But I think it's just reasonable to not assume we're always right about all of our opinions. I feel like it's easy to be wrong about so many things or at least to not give any weight to where another party is coming from. As much as we love our world to contain those with right opinions and those with wrong ones, a lot of times it's such a condition of circumstance, it's impossible to think everyone doesn't have some valid justification in their mind for how they feel.

Do you think your relationship to your (real or perceived) niceness has been affected by moments like that?
I do think I am resentful sometimes that everyone thinks I'm this nice, sweet cherub baby tomato. I am frequently enraged by people but I just am not great at expressing my anger, so most of it turns into a lot of stern walking around the city blasting rap into my brain. I am getting a little bit better at expressing it, but sometimes I'll feel as though I figuratively threw a vase at someone and they'll be like "Oh, were you upset? I wasn't exactly sure." So it's a process.

Sometimes I pretend I am my friend and my friend got the compliment and I can be happy for my friend. A little trick for the neurotics in the room.

How are you with praise in general?
I am terrible with receiving compliments. I am trying to work on at least trying to absorb a tiny bit of them. But usually it's like "Oh, good one person I can briefly assume doesn't hate me." It's not the best attitude! I need to work on being nicer to myself. Sometimes I pretend I am my friend and my friend got the compliment and I can be happy for my friend. A little trick for the neurotics in the room.

What's the best compliment you've ever received?
One of the best compliments I've ever received is from my college friend Luci who said, "You have a very poetic understanding of little absurdities." It's still one of my favorite little tidbits I keep in my brain pocket. In terms of giving compliments, I try to be generous with mine, but I do generally love this construction for a compliment: "You're a chocolate chip in a world of raisins." You get the idea. Sorry to bring down raisins back there. They grow more on me every day.