I often hear the words “nice” and “kind” used as if they are synonyms.
At first glance, it may seem like a distinction without a difference. But upon closer inspection, you’ll find the difference is massive, and very consequential.
The difference is empathy.
On the one side, we have the quality of niceness — of being pleasant and agreeable. On the surface, those seem like noble pursuits. What a wonderful, frictionless world it would be if we were all nicer to each other.
But dig deep.
What is our motivator for being nice? When we are being nice, are we being nice because it benefits the people we’re interacting with … or because we want to be seen as someone who is nice?
It’s surely a mixture of both. But once you get past the surface level motivation, and really dig deep, don’t you find that its mostly the latter?
- Being nice leads to people liking us.
- Being nice helps us avoid conflict and confrontation.
- Being nice allows us to feel good about ourself because we come to believe that we are a “nice” person. (Beware of such self-fulfilling circular logic.)
There are so many self-serving benefits to being nice. It’s why so many of us take great pride in being nice. I’ve spent 34 years focused way too much on being nice. It becomes part of our personal identify.
And that’s not a good thing.
Because not every situation is made better by being pleasant and agreeable.
Let me rephrase.
Not every situation is made better in the long run by being pleasant and agreeable.
The reality is that most situations are made better in the short run, in the moment, by being pleasant and agreeable; but the long-term cost of the short-term band-aid of niceness can be significant, often greater than the cost might otherwise have been.
This is why niceness is overrated.
And it’s why niceness is often driven by undesirable feelings at either end of the Primility spectrum:
- On the pride end, vanity drives niceness because we’re concerned about cultivating our reputation for it.
- On the humility end, meekness drives niceness because we simply want to avoid confrontation and conflict at any cost.
Niceness often leads to us speaking the easy words and taking the easy action in the moment, rather than speaking the right words and taking the right action while considering the bigger picture … even if it may be difficult to do so.
Do you see the problem with niceness? Its short-term benefits may not outweigh its long-term costs. Why take the risk?
Instead, opt for kindness.
Kindness means having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.
You can still be pleasant and agreeable when you’re being kind — if being pleasant and agreeable is what’s called for. But true kindness may mean being something other than pleasant and agreeable if the situation calls for something else.
Because true kindness (not kindness masquerading as niceness) means speaking the right words and taking the right action, even when it is difficult to do so. True kindness is not concerned with what is easy — unless what is easy is also right.
Here’s a quick example to illustrate the difference:
You read this blog post. You like it. You think it’s well-written and accurate. You comment below to that effect, possibly even adding an anecdote or two from your own life to further the discussion.
You are being nice, and you are also being kind. Thank you.
Let’s say you read this blog post and you do not like it. You think it’s poorly written and/or not an accurate reflection of the difference between niceness and kindness. You have three options. You can …
- Be nice by telling me you like it anyway, which would lead me to a false sense of confidence and satisfaction with this post and this idea.
- Say nothing, which, in this case, would be another way of being nice.
- Be kind by giving me your honest feedback about the post, so that I can either improve it and explain this idea better, or realize that this is not a topic worth pursuing at Primility.
Your options for niceness would both be pleasant and agreeable. Neither your vanity nor your meekness would be challenged by either.
You option for kindness, on the other hand, might not be quite so pleasant and agreeable, but it would be far more meaningful to me in the long run. It would take a great deal of generosity and consideration for you to send such feedback. You’d be investing your valuable time in crafting a more substantial response, and you would be risking (at least in your own head) a challenge to my view of you as someone who is “nice.”
But so what?
You would be helping me out immensely while simultaneously earning my respect for you as someone who is kind, which is so much more important and valuable a quality to possess than being nice.
And let me issue this essential remember:
The first element of kindness is still “being friendly,” so it’s not like your feedback would have to come off as insulting.
If you simply commented, “This sucked,” that would not be very kind. If, however, you commented, “I can’t really get behind this idea, Jerod. I don’t see the distinction between niceness the kindness the same way you do. Perhaps using more examples to illustrate your point would help,” that would be a friendly way of offering me generous, considerate feedback. It would be useful and helpful.
It would be kind.
Kindness allows us to help each other, in a genuine shared spirit of empathy and generosity. Niceness, on the other hand, simply allows us to live in a constant state of pleasant agreement.
And while pleasant agreement is good sometimes, a genuine shared spirit of empathy and generosity is good all the time.
So let me ask you: Would you rather someone describe you as being “nice” or as being “kind”?
Let the answer to that question drive your next interaction, even if it’s with yourself. (This is important, because we tend to underrate the long-term trouble we can bring upon our lives when we are constantly nice to ourselves. We should instead strive to be kind to ourselves.)
Will you say the easy words and take the easy action, or will you say the right words and take the right action?
Don’t worry about being nice. It will get you through this moment, but at what cost?
Be kind. Starting with the next time you have a chance to do so.
Be better now.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Megan Sparks