“That’s the problem with Midwesterners!” explodes my intensely creative, less than patient friend. “They think nice is a thing. Nice is just passive-aggressive.”
Wait—nice is not a thing? Not a virtue to which we must aspire? Not the sweet lubricant that allows us to function in community?
That would be kindness. Respect, too. “Nice” comes from the Latin nescius, meaning unaware, ignorant, stupid, or foolish. That meaning changed many times over the years, dipping into excessively luxurious conduct or clothing in the late 1300s, morphing into an aesthetic sensibility sharpened to a fussy precision, softening into refined, edging into coy, delicate, reserved. Today, “nice” means agreeable, pleasant, cordial. It stays at the surface. “Kind,” on the other hand, means sympathetic, helpful, gentle, merciful. The real virtues.
A nice guy . . . finishes last. No one has ever said “Kind guys finish last,” because they do not. Kindness is harder to overpower because when you are kind, your actions come from a place of strength. When you are nice, you are bargaining to be liked. A nice guy might win a woman’s heart, but only because she assumes he is also kind; when she learns that he is weak instead, she will henpeck him to bits in sheer exasperation.
Handed her first electric typewriter, Flannery O’Connor wrote politely, “It is very nice but I am not used to it yet. I keep thinking about all the electricity that is being wasted.” Consider what faint praise it is to meet someone and then report that they “seemed nice enough”; a tiny “but” hangs silent in the wake. A nice try is one that, by definition, did not succeed. Someone who is “just being nice” does not mean what they said. And being told “You’re too nice” is definitely passive-aggressive, a sly pseudo-compliment that really means you lack the courage to defend your rights, protect your boundaries, voice your convictions.
Boiled down, the problem is simple: Nice does not speak the truth. Nice dances around the truth, speaking so softly and with so much extra reassurance and bubbling niceness (what other word, for remarks so positive and vapid?) that the recipient is left blinking slowly, uncertain where they stand. I have watched so many bosses avoid firing someone in order to be nice (meaning, to avoid hearing angry, bitter rebuttal or harsh criticism from the person’s allies). The person is left in the miserable position of knowing their work is not meeting expectations but figuring they can coast along a little longer, stay defensive, hang on to the salary. Often it helps if they are super nice, because plenty of bosses prefer to manage someone who is pleasant and compliant, even at the expense of intelligence, talent, and ability. When you think about it, niceness is patronizing. By preferring what is agreeable to what is true, you imply that the other person is too pathetic, insecure, or stupid to hear the full truth.
Worst of all, nice masquerades as Christian, pretending to love its neighbor. Nice smooths over discord. Nice is the lamb in the shepherd’s flock. Except—Jesus was not nice. He was pretty blunt, in fact. He spoke in parables, but the subtext was often harsh. In “The Shushing Tyranny of ‘Be Nice,’” Elizabeth Scalia writes, “Jesus did not want Peter’s niceness; he wanted Peter’s self-awareness. . . . The truth is not always pleasant; it is often scalding.” And “nice,” as Stephen Sondheim points out, “is different than good.”
I think back to my favorite professors, the ones I remember because I learned so much from them. Only two could I have called “nice,” but in retrospect, they were kind and gentle, and I had not yet made the distinction. The other five were none of that. Not nice, not even kind or gentle, but deeply dedicated, respectful of their students’ minds, determined to pry them open. They struck terror in my heart, and one brought me to tears—yet they gave me far more than the bland ones.
David Mitchell warns us to “watch out for reasonless niceness”: “It’s never reasonless, and its reason’s not usually nice.” Cynicism that symmetrical has been learned from experience. We tell little kids to be nice because it is something they can grasp (we have trained them) and it is easier for us than listing more complicated virtues. Nice is simple shorthand, all wrapped up in quiet, smiling obedience and cooperation and not making anybody mad. We mean the same thing when we tell an adult to “play nice”: Swallow whatever you really feel and cooperate, feign mildness, or pretend to approve.
“Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction,” notes Gavin de Becker. “It is not a character trait.” The ever-strategic Mark Twain wrote of an enemy, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” An event might call for “nice” clothes, meaning those others will approve. “Have a nice day”—no wonder we rebel against that suggestion. Who wants a day that is merely nice, pretending all is well? Such complaisance is useful only on a stressful group vacation in a foreign country.
Is there any respectable use for the word? I do like a nice distinction. Also the edgier uses: “Nicely played,” after a deft retort or a bit of Machiavellian finesse. “Nice,” drawled when a barbed comment hits its mark. There is a coolness to such usage, a wry detachment that is possible because “nice” exists only at the surface. We can speak about having “nice things” because things exist at the surface, too; we can buy, sell, and manipulate them, and we derive a shallow pleasure from what they signify.
Modern art is not nice. Activism is not nice. Nothing rebellious, honest, and independent is nice. These are lessons I have had to learn over time, because I am female, and to this day, women are expected to be nice. There is sizable progress, however. Teenagers are no longer lectured or handed a rule book listing all the things nice girls do not do. (Nice tends to focus on what it is not.) Little girls were stuck in the kitchen ladling out sugar and spice and learning that they were expected to represent “everything nice.” A diabolical bit of propaganda, that nursery rhyme. So is the commercial Christmas: If Santa ever asks again, I will say, clear as a bell, that I have been “naughty.”
Speaking your mind is far more fun than the toys you get for being nice.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.