Back in September, I went home to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate (and officiate, imagine that!) one of my best friend’s wedding. While I was there, I started talking with my other best friend (yes: I have two. They’re literally the best people. And I do wake up thankful every day for the fact that I can call them both “friend”) about a conversation I had with my husband.
I’m not sure how exactly this topic arose, some discussion about our compatibilities and why we have been together so long, but my husband mentioned that he is a “nice” person, whereas I am a “kind” person. So, on the surface, or until people really get to know us, my husband is the one who seems approachable, friendly, sympathetic, and all things “nice;” On the other hand, I’ve often been told that people are at first intimidated by me, that I seem intense, quiet, and distant, which they (mis)take for judgmental or cold. We learned something interesting about this when, years ago, we were both working at a book store. Once people got to know both of us individually, and then as a couple, we noticed they would go to him to ask for something, because they knew he would be nice about it, but what they were asking for was often something that I would need to do (because they knew I would probably do it, they just didn’t want to ask me… I don’t suppose my sarcasm helped those situations.)
Anyway, I was talking to my friend about this and she seemed not only to agree, but to think that it made a lot of sense. That it created some kind of balance. The conversation has had me thinking about these concepts of kindness and niceness; whether most people tend to be one or the other, and how often is it both? (We all know some people who are definitely neither.) I can think of another friend who is both nice and kind, seemingly as a default; she is one of the most decent people I have ever met. But that seems to me to be truly rare. And I wonder why this is. Does it leave us too vulnerable? Is it too exhausting? Are we too often rebuffed or abused if we are always nice and kind? Do people think this is “fake”?
I do try to be nice, meaning I often find that it takes some effort; but I don’t feel the same about kindness. I don’t often find myself trying to be kind. For me, the “public” nature of niceness, things like friendliness and openness, and even looking people in the eye, takes work. I’ve begun to wonder if that is a part of my introverted personality and something that I can switch “off” in certain scenarios. With my students, for example, I turn “on” in a significant way, and become much more extroverted. On the other hand, kindness, I think, seems to be a deeper and less mutable part of me. I’m probably sometimes too empathetic, and getting even more so as I age, if I’m being honest. There are any number of times that I can recall trying to make someone else’s day or time or experience a little bit better, even at the expense to my own welfare. If I have something and you need it, I’m going to give it to you. If you need a ride or help moving or whatever, and it’s my only day off in 10 days, I’m still going to be there. If someone I don’t know passes away and I’m asked to the wake by a colleague or mutual friend, I usually end up going (even though this has always felt extremely awkward to me). Where does kindness come from? Niceness? Are they both learned traits? Do we start with certain degrees of each and then expand or contract depending on our own experiences?
Recently, I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, What Happened, and she shares some similar insights into this question. She seems, like me, to struggle sometimes to project the image of “niceness” and empathy, while internally she is a deeply compassionate and concerned person. This might be one of the reasons I have always admired her beyond the work she has done, and beyond her incredible work ethic and rich knowledge about so many complex issues. Instead, I respect her simply due to this connection with another person of a similar type. Unlike me, Clinton is a religious person. And I pondered that, too. Where do niceness and kindness and morality all come together? There seems to be some kind of “golden rule” at the center of most major religions, though I would never agree that one must be religious in order to be a moral or ethical person. Still, I’ve read the Christian bible a number of times and a verse comes to mind:
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Somehow this passage speaks to me about the truth and value of kindness. This is not to say that the passage is instructing us away from niceness–not at all. But, what I see is that contrast between speaking and doing. Between thinking and acting. Between sympathizing and empathizing. To me, the formers often apply to the nice person. A shoulder, a conversation, and even an acknowledgement of your suffering; all of these are to be found in the nice person. But the kind person is the one who keeps his heart open in order to act. The kind person loves by example, by commitment, and by following through on what is needed most, when it is needed most, and especially, without design or expectation for reward or reciprocity.
Nice is the person who feels bad when a friend’s car breaks down or when they see a stranger caught in the rain. Kind is the person who doesn’t mind when his day is disrupted by that friend in need or who offers his umbrella to the stranger.
When mother used to say, “be nice,” to the kid everyone picked on, she meant stop picking on him. When Ellen DeGeneres ends her talk show every day with, “be kind,” she means be the sort of person who never would have thought about hurting that kid in the first place.
For some of us, it is easier, or more natural, to be one or the other. I guess I’m trying to learn how to be both.
Wow. I can’t say I have ever given this topic much thought. I think, by your definitions and examples, I am a kind person. I will never be considered nice. Most people think I am a bitch when they first meet me. I struggle with small talk and won’t really open up and connect until I get to know someone. This is an area I have spent a lot of time and effort improving over the years, and I can now mingle with strangers with a minimum of discomfort but it will never be my strength. I do think I am innately kind though. I empathize with others more than most people I know. I am forever helping friends even though the last thing I might want to do is leave the house.
Your comments have me wondering if one is better than the other. Is it better to be kind or nice? Does it matter? Is there a focus on niceness rather than kindness in society? Might it help explain why there are so many “thoughts and prayers” in times of tragedy but little action?
Deep thoughts for a Wednesday morning.
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Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve had this in mind for a few weeks, now. I also think it is important that we are kind to ourselves. Something that’s been “worrying” me, somewhat, is how this translates to my professional sphere. I’m on the tenure-track in academia and in a few years will be up for tenure review. I know that making connections and being visible is a significant part of being approved… so how does an introvert project that kind of “presence?” Am I projecting that I am “nice” and a team-player, when I’m rather a quiet person? Certainly, I love what I do, I have my office door open all the time, I go to events and such… but I’m always wondering if I’m doing enough because, in my mind, I know what I want most is to be at home with a good book, in a quiet space.
This is a beautiful piece, thank you for it. My sons were fortunate to have attended a school for 10 years whose motto is “Be honest, be kind, be the best you can be” and it helped shape the boys (all boys school) into really actively compassionate young men. Niceness was expected but kindness is an intentional goal.
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That’s really wonderful to hear, and I wish all education were as focused on the whole person. I admire the Montessori method/schools for that very reason, their holistic approach to education and humanness. How do we learn to treat ourselves, each other, and our planet it a kind way? I’ve often thought about what might have been different, for me, had I had that kind of educational experience.
I have pondered the concept of niceness to some degree before, but I don’t think I have ever compared it with kindness. I do need improvement in both. I have an introvert’s tendency to want to cut the small talk and get to the point – I hate meaningless “How are yous” when the only expected answer is “Fine,” but to bypass that ritual would not come across as very nice, so I participate. But I do genuinely care about people.
I also tend to think of niceness as something like a kindly Grandma who won’t tell her grandchildren “No” (no offense to any of the folks whom you’ve described as nice), whereas parents have to be the “bad guy” and not let a child have what he wants for the child’s overall good sometimes, which is kinder though it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. But that may not be a fair characterization. You’ve provided food for thought!
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That’s a good point. I was just thinking about ways that we try to be kind (because we’re being nice?) that ultimately might not be the “kind” thing to do… your example is a good one. I was thinking of someone who gives someone else a number of “second” tries… it might be nice to let someone (a student, employee, what have you?) try, try again… but at what point is it unkind? If they truly aren’t learning something, aren’t growing, and might be compromising the integrity of the friendship, work environment, or classroom, is it “kind” to keep being “nice” about it?
What a great post! I’m not even supposed to be on the computer as I fell off my bike and have a broken wrist and a concussion but I couldn’t resist commenting, as this topic is one that resonates with me. I’m definitely a kind person but it’s not something that came naturally but something I acquired with practice and challenging myself. I do believe in God and the quote you shared and make an effort whenever I see an opportunity given. For example, on the ride to the hospital I convinced the water ambulance driver to throw out his energy drink and he made a commitment to a healthier lifestyle (supporting his wife who had already started the change) and in emergency, I supported a mother with two children who just found out she was pregnant (a surprise) — she was in tears when I first started talking to her but left later with a smile, a brighter outlook and a promise to focus on the positive, so I was able to turn a rather serious and unpleasant experience (mine) into something good. I do however struggle with people’s responses sometimes. People are less and less able to recognize kindness and/or think it’s weird which is a sad commentary on our society. But I will keep persevering because kindness is one of the most important things that connects us as human beings, and without it we become less connected which opens the door to strife and hatred and a whole bunch of other harmful things. Niceness is nice, but it’s really more surface ….. it’s kindness that comes from the heart and reaches hearts and is more important …….. So glad you’re back to blogging! 🙂
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Wow, thank you for stopping by despite your injury! I might have to add a tagline to my blog: “Read Against Doctor’s Orders.” 😉
I completely agree with the statement that people don’t know how to react to kindness anymore, even thinking it is “weird.” It’s a shame that we have gotten to this point, though I would have to conduct some anthropological/cultural research to see if this is really something that has changed over time. I certainly feel* like earlier generations were much more polite, but there again, I have to ask, are polite and kind the same thing?
I also think social media has affected us quite a bit, sometimes positively but mostly negatively. We see how people respond with donations and outpouring of stated support when there are terrible tragedies, for example, but we also see so, so much hatred and vitriol from people who feel emboldened by the fact that they are behind a computer screen. If we really looked each other in the eye and had personal conversations again, would we start to heal? Or, will we eventually realize that we need to heal anyway and so somehow adapt our technology or our use of it?
(Also, so sorry to hear that you’re injured! I wish you a speedy recovery!)
Very thought-provoking. I’ve actually never considered the two to be different, but you’ve made me think otherwise.
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I always believe that love has something to do with either niceness and kindness in a person. It even begins when one is conceived. If a child is enveloped and surrounded with love since the beginning, I believe he will grow up a “whole” person. I don’t know exactly what it is called, but I for one feel this completeness in me. Like I am capable of always being happy and feeling abundantly of love and warmness. And consequently, I always have the need to be nice and kind. I am very fortunate to have a loving parents, and to have been surrounded always with loving atmosphere in my home.
Reading classics or literary fiction, I believe, also helps us to be compassionate towards others. This is like sharpening our niceness and kindness, which might have been blunt after being exposed to the selfish and greedy world we live in.
Anyway, thank you for this thought-provoking post. It made my day! ^^
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I can see how both a nuturing environment and a lifelong relationship with literature would influence “wholeness” and help encourage/develop empathy and compassion. Great points, thank you.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself, and not just because I spout in my day job with kids to throw kindness like confetti. Then, I was reading Quiet, which has been quite fascinating, and I think that it addresses these thoughts a bit throughout the book. I see that you are planning on reading Quiet for the readathon. I will be curious to hear your thoughts when are done with it!
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