Niceness and Kindness

When deciding how to act, I find it helpful to distinguish between niceness and kindness.

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between nice and kind. But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

And a lot of the time, that’s okay. It’s tempting to elevate kindness above niceness as the clearly superior way of interacting, but it’s not. First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

Trying to insert kindness into situations where it’s not warranted and wasn’t asked for can also mean giving people unsolicited help or advice. You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested. That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

I mentioned earlier that too much kindness, or kindness at inappropriate times, can look like trying to help people when they don’t want it or in ways they don’t need. Too much niceness looks like trying to manipulate people’s emotions by keeping them from ever being upset–specifically, upset at you.

Excessive niceness can also be extraordinarily unkind. If you continue a relationship you don’t want to be in so that you don’t hurt the person’s feelings, that prevents them from coping with the truth, moving on, and maybe putting their energy into finding someone who actually wants to be with them.

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.


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Niceness and Kindness

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