The Problem With Nice

*Nice pretends to be a virtue, but kindness actually is.*

“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.” They assume that 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 find myself returning 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. More and more, 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 might actually move me away from all of those traits I value. Nice makes me less of myself, not more. Nice gets me nowhere: it’s a dead-end road. I need a different approach. I need to be kind.

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. Kindness requires that we take in the horror of the world around us and choose to make things better. Kindness forces us to act for the sake of others. Kindness is a reckoning with where things are and where they should be. Kindness pays attention; niceness overlooks.

Nice pretends to be a virtue, but kindness actually is. Nice harms us, and all of the people we interact with, more than it ever helps. We need kindness now more than ever. We should abandon nice.

Once again, 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 a small step in the right direction. I’m over nice and its easy smile, false cheer, and pretend care. I’m ready for the honesty and concern of kindness. I’m ready for more acceptance. I’m ready for more love.

Aren’t you?


This essay first appeared in my Tiny Letter, Cold Takes, in June of 2016. (I lightly revised it for my site.)

Talking to a friend today made me realize that it still had value, especially amidst all the inane defenses of civility that abound right now. Civility is just another form of nice, which covers up all the damage being done by focusing on manners and tone of voice. The calls to civility are a ruse. Don’t fall for them. Kindness requires a reckoning with the damage rather than an obsession with manners. Be kind, not civil.

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