Nice weather we’re having. So nice to see you. Hope you had a nice weekend! Of all the adjectives we use on a daily basis, the word ‘nice’ has always intrigued me.
It’s used in such a variety of contexts, with so many different inflections, that it’s difficult to define without using synonyms like ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’.
Its universality has been a discussion point for literary giants like Jane Austen, who famously wrote in Northanger Abbey:
“This is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement… But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”
My original issue with the word ‘nice’ was that it was generic and, as someone who loves using language to express themselves, also infuriatingly unimaginative. I’m perfectly happy describing pleasant strangers or adequate meals this way, but for things and people that matter to me, I like to do them more justice.
My mentors and friends are inspiring, hilarious, resilient and joyful to be around. They are not always ‘nice’, nor would I want them to be.
I decided to look into the origins of this catch-all adjective and was surprised to learn it was first used in the late 13th century Middle English to mean ‘ignorant’ or ‘foolish’, derived from its Latin root word ‘nescire’ meaning to ‘not know’. Over time the word was assigned meanings ranging from something of little regard, to shyness, fussiness and modesty.
Despite its ambiguous origins, it is now commonly accepted as a word that means desirable, pleasant or socially accepted. Nice’s lack of specificity is exactly why we can use it to describe everything, from the weather to an outfit to a piece of music.
It’s also one of the reasons I’m trying to banish it from my vocabulary.
Being nice is not the same as being kind
I don’t necessarily believe that being nice and being kind are polar opposites, or mutually exclusive. I do, however, feel that they have distinctive and important differences.
I have met plenty of people who are ‘nice’ but are not kind, and I’ve also met extremely compassionate and kind people who are not necessarily always pleasant or polite.
Being nice is a more surface-level interaction or behaviour. It usually means they appear courteous or well mannered. This can be rooted in kindness and caring about other people, but it can also be a result of privilege, insincerity, or a desire to get something in return.
A nice person could smile and say all the right things to your face, but in reality, be completely uninterested in you and your life. Other people may have a unique or confronting way of communicating or behaving but are genuinely interested and concerned with your wellbeing.
Some people carry so much compassion and love for others that they become frustrated or fiery in certain settings, such as when they witness injustice.
Niceness is to kindness what social media is to real life; it’s a pretty good imitation, but the substance and real connection just isn’t there.
Politeness is also inherently cultural, so what constitutes ‘bad’ manners will differ greatly for people from differing backgrounds. Arriving late to a social gathering, for example, is the epitome of rudeness for some.
Yet, in some countries it is socially expected to arrive at least ten to fifteen minutes after the agreed upon time. Arriving early or right on time is seen as a great imposition, as the host is likely still getting prepared.
This is just one risk of conflating a good heart with good manners; politeness or niceness is a cultural and societally constructed behaviour; kindness is a universal desire to help or at least do no harm to others.
Assuming they are the same might mean we miss out on making connections with incredible humans, or give too much of our time to people who don’t truly care about us because they are good at acting like they do.
"Niceness is to kindness what social media is to real life; it’s a pretty good imitation, but the substance and real connection just isn't there." – Emma Lennon
Being nice is more expected from women
I remember once being at a dinner where I felt really out of place. It was my first experience with fine dining, and I was meeting with upper-class, ‘nice’ people whom I wanted to like me.
My nerves, and the fact that I barely recognised any of the exotic dishes on the menu, meant that I picked at my food like a bird. I spent most of that dinner with my knife and fork down, smiling and nodding at everyone else.
“You eat so nicely! What a lovely young lady you are,” I was told.
I felt hot and sweaty instantly. Did being nice mean being too terrified to be yourself? Or did it mean hardly eating or speaking in social settings because you are trying to be agreeable?
I started thinking of all the ways I had been taught to behave in order to be a nice or ‘good girl’; don’t be too loud, don’t have a big appetite, put others first, smile, don’t make a fuss.
Some of these expectations were the catalyst for decades of suffering and self-hatred, and giving up on performing these ‘niceties’ was one of the most liberating decisions I ever made. If being nice means putting myself back in that cage, I’ll happily pass.
While a ‘nice woman’ is often someone who suffers greatly for others, or becomes a martyr in the name of her family, a ‘nice guy’ is a different concept altogether.
Nice guys are told that they finish last, or that having basic decency entitles them to the time and attention of others, often women. Male perpetrators of horrific acts of abuse are protected by those who insist they are good fathers, family men, ‘nice guys’.
Convincing performances of niceness can hide a staggering absence of kindness or compassion, with women too often paying the price.
There is no one way to be ‘nice’
In short, ‘niceness’ is an imaginary social construct.
Everyone holds different opinions of what it means, so for most of us trying to be nice is really just trying to meet the expectations of those around us.
Focusing on being perceived as nice or polite makes sense in certain settings like the workplace, but it leaves too little room for authentic opinions, behaviours and emotions.
I’ve spent enough time in my life trying to win external approval or validation, so if I have to choose between being true to myself or bending over backwards to please others, it’s a very easy choice for me.
I will choose what is true and authentic over what is ‘nice’ every single time.