With Kansas City on the rise, Mia Mercado reconsiders our 'Midwestern nice' reputation
Taylor Swift, The New York Times, and the World Cup have all taken note: Kansas City is a nice place. But does that just mean we’re ‘boring?’
Mia Mercado has thought a lot about what it means to be “Midwestern nice.”
The comedic writer, who grew up near Milwaukee and now lives in Kansas City, Kansas, is as much an expert on the topic as you could hope to find — she wrote a book about her own niceness in 2022, called “She’s Nice Though.”
As the national spotlight brightens over Kansas City, attracting more eyes and visitors, she also thinks about living in a place some might describe with that lackluster word — nice. It comes with benefits and pitfalls.
“I don't know what we'll do if we become a tourist city,” Mercado says. “I feel like probably more of the same. Just be more Midwesternly nice to more people.”
This, at a time when the Kansas City Chiefs are about to defend their NFL title with an internationally beloved pop star acting as top fan, and planning is underway for the metro to help host the 2026 World Cup.
Often, being nice has a lot to do with “absorbing discomfort for the sake of other people's comfort,” Mercado says.
Though her specialty is niceness on an interpersonal level, much of what she teases out in her book can apply to our city’s collective personality.
Is that code?
“I do think that there is something analogous about the idea. If you are going to go on a date with somebody, and you're being set up, and the other person is telling you, ‘Um, well, they're nice ... ’” she says, trailing off.
Nice is code, Mercado says. “Like, any salacious, fun things that you would associate with the person take a backseat to their niceness.”
What would happen, she asks, if Des Moines visited Kansas City and wanted to hold hands?
The analogy breaks down a little when you talk about dating, but the sentiment remains.
“I think there is maybe an assumption that, if nice is the first word that you're using to describe a city, does that mean they're boring?”
To make matters worse, she’s heard other cities talking. The rumor is that, in this part of the country, people are nice but not kind.
“You're playing ‘nice’ with the people around you,” Mercado says, “but then you go home, and you're like, ‘Oh my God, can you believe that person said that?’”
By contrast, people on the coasts are rumored to be kind but not nice; their courtesy isn’t couched in making anyone feel comfortable.
Take Zoey’s lead
Mercado’s brother, Zoey, who has Down syndrome, seems to have discovered a winning formula that balances superficial niceness with authentic kindness.
“People have a lot of assumptions about what he can or can't do, what he does or doesn't understand,” she says. “And — oops, surprise! — he understands a lot. He can sense when somebody is being fake nice.”
She writes that she’s watched him fake niceness, too, smiling through his own discomfort or politely waiting for an opening in the conversation so he can share an idea.
“It’s a strange little dance we’re all doing for each other,” Mercado writes, “performing this balance of impulse and patience, participation and politeness. Instead, Zoey approaches others with the assumption that he will like them, and they will like him.”
And while Zoey's behavior seems to be for the sake of those around him, Mercado thinks the rest of us may act that way for ourselves.
“He has the ability and the self-confidence to just be himself and know that people will like that — and, also, if they don't like it, it's not his fault that they have bad taste,” she says.
It’s not a Midwestern nice mindset, but one an increasingly popular Midwestern city can learn from.
“If I could bottle Zoey's formula for loving yourself and being excited to make other people love you,” Mercado says, “I would be drinking that formula all day.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Kansas City Public Library.
“Women Aren’t Funny: A Discussion With Funny Women Who Disagree,” moderated by Julie Vick, with Mia Mercado, Emily Farris, and Kristen Mulrooney, is at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8 at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Location, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64105. The event is free with RSVP. More information at KCLibrary.org.