“I was just trying to be nice.”
“I just wanted to be nice.”
“Not nice,” I say to the toddler after he bludgeons his sister with a random toy, “NOT NICE.”
I find myself thinking about “nice” a lot lately, often before recounting a story of something gone terribly awry. Exasperation lingers in my tone. Frustration coats my words. I was just trying to be nice, but things go sideways. They tend to when I start with nice.
I’m not sure why this happens. Maybe, my attempts at niceness appear as sign of a polite weakness. Maybe, nice renders me a pushover, a people-pleaser, who will go out of her way to remain pleasant. Initial friendliness suggests the desire to be agreeable at all costs, even when other people become increasingly unpleasant. Being nice shows that I can be dismissed without much effort or time. Being nice makes me easy to overlook, ignore, and disparage.
Nice rests at an intersection of gender, race, and age. Our culture expects thirty-something white women to be nice, unassuming, and sacrificial. Putting the needs of others before our own with smiles on our faces and resignation in our eyes. We’re expected to be nice, so we pretend to be, no matter how we really feel. Women of other races and ethnicities are often not given the option of nice or even agreeable. Nice appears out of their reach. Nice is both raced and gendered. Perhaps, this explains why the people I encounter assume that I’m a “nice white lady,” and I’m willing to put up with nonsense that they would never expect from others.
Little do they know, I don’t handle nonsense well. Actually, I have very little patience for nonsense. Something about being nice suggests that I can be trifled with. I’m tired of trifling. Maybe, that is why I’m so ambivalent about nice.
Nice appears as quality that we say we admire, but it isn’t really. “She’s so nice” appears more as a dig than a compliment. Niceness suggests something artificial, false, or disingenuous. Or even worse, nice emerges as a cover for the nasty thoughts, actions, and ideas that we keep bottled up. Nice hides the ugliness we hold onto, but don’t mention in polite company.
Nice doesn’t encourage us to look below the surface where the danger so often lies.
Yet, I still return to nice as way to navigate the world. I try to be nice because many people aren’t. I try to be friendly. I attempt to be polite. I try to smile, even when I don’t feel like it. I strive to not be an asshole. Nice makes me seem agreeable when I know that I’m actually difficult.
I can fake nice; we all can. I’m not sure we all should.
Nice, however, is not I want to be. I want to be kind, compassionate, honest, truthful, and direct. (I want my children to be all of those things too.) Nice doesn’t compel me to be any of these. Nice is getting me nowhere. Nice might be a dead-end road. I need a different approach, a re-emphasis on kindness.
Kind is not a synonym for nice. There are sharp distinctions between being nice and being kind. Nice is all surface. Kindness is depth. Nice is fluffy illusion. Kindness is a sturdy construction. Being kind sometimes requires us to abandon nice to speak the truth. Truth hurts, and kindness acknowledges this. Nice pretends that hurts are temporary, avoidable, and not to be mentioned. Kindness allows us our hurts and encourages us to learn and grow. With a bright smile and charming demeanor, nice can cover a mean-spirited view . Kindness can’t live with the harm that such meanness and hatred causes. Nice pretends to be a virtue; kindness actually is. Nice harms us more than it ever helps. I’ve started to focus on being kind rather than being nice.
“Be kind to your sister,” I say to my toddler.
“Be kind to your brother,” I say to my seven-year-old.
“Be kind. Please be kind,” I repeat to myself.
“Be kind to one another,” I say to all of us.
It’s a small correction, but an important one. I want them to be kind, not nice. Our world needs less nice and much more kindness. This is my small step in the right direction. I’m over nice and its easy smile, false cheer, and pretend care. I’m ready for more kindness. I’m ready for more acceptance. I’m ready for more love.
I wrote this essay over a year ago for my TinyLetter, but I thought I need to read it again today. Maybe you do too.