Being Nice: A Strategy of Kindness

I recently exchanged a text with my 20 year old, which went like this (I love those emojis!)

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Being nice has been my parental and personal mantra. I recall a time when an elementary school mom came to me privately and told me my daughter had been mean to her daughter. I had a talk with my daughter about being nice … and about how sometimes it is hard to be nice, and sometimes it is easier and more cool to be mean. But I told her it’s always best to try to be nice, even when it is not easy.

Be Nice Happy Face

Image credit Twwexy Esy under Creative Commons license.

As I approach the end of my first 50 years on earth, I still struggle with living my own mantra. It is not always easy to be nice, but it is always best to try. As a business owner who interacts with multiple clients every day, being nice is not always top of mind – getting things done, replying to an unending stream of email requests, complaints, misunderstandings – it is easy to be grumpy and unpleasant.

Lately I have felt exhausted. This doesn’t just mean I have trouble waking up in the morning (although after years of waking before 6 am to exercise, I am hitting the snooze button more these days!). I am tired of dealing with clients who ask the same question over and over again, who clearly do not read emails I painstakingly craft for an hour or more, who don’t even take the time to look at their own website that they paid me to build. It wears me out to see emails from clients in ALL CAPS. I am tired of feeling guilty that I sit in front of my computer for 10 hours a day with almost no break and not much to show for it, because I spend so much time “whacking moles” that pop up throughout the day. I am tired of wanting to level up my skills and never making or having the time to devote to learning. It’s hard to be nice when I have these feelings. And sometimes I’m not nice.

Here’s where the blog post I intended to write takes a turn down a dark road I didn’t expect to encounter. I entitled this post, “Being Nice: A Strategy of Kindness” not realizing that this would open up a can of worms, or what it might reveal about me.

With this topic for my blog post in mind, I recently asked my running group about their thoughts on being “nice” and being “kind.” Someone said “nice” can seem fake, whereas kindness is genuine. So I came home and started reading about the difference between “nice” and “kind.”

Nice vs. Kind

The dictionary defines these two words:

Nice: adj; pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance; socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous

Kind: adj; having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature; used especially of persons and their behavior; characterized by mercy, and compassion

I had never perceived the desire to be “nice” as negative, but in researching this blog post, it turns out that being “nice” is often (very often) described as a bad thing! Ack! Now I feel awful for wanting to be nice! The more articles I read about “nice vs. kind,” the worse I felt about myself.

Kind People are Better than Nice People

In a Huffington Post article on this subject, Marcia Sirota describes the difference as:

“Kind people have good self-esteem and because they love themselves as much as they care about others, they expect to be treated with respect. Nice people are desperate for approval, so they’re often mistreated or taken advantage of … Nice people tend to do too much for those who don’t deserve it and are easy prey for users.”

This article really made me question my desire to be nice, and the reasons behind this desire. Sirota took “nice” to the next level, saying “As the nice person continues to please everyone and the anger simmers underneath the surface, the pressure builds up. At some point emotions begin to leak, in the form of snarky comments, whining, needling, sarcasm, passive-aggressive behaviour or even outbursts of rage.” Oh, yes, I have had that happen – that was the motivation for writing this in the first place – the challenge of being nice when you are tired, frustrated and angry.

This article, by Kevin Ellerton, states that “Kindness is rooted in love, niceness is rooted in fear.” He goes even further, stating that “niceness arises from a combination of fear, selfishness, greed, and the desire for power” and then goes on to say that niceness arises from evil! Deb Ozarko says, “Nice is nasty.” Another blogger wrote an article about how disgusted she is by “nice” people. Ack again! Now I am a horrible, evil person and a terrible mother for teaching my children to be nice?!

Author Elizabeth Gilbert makes me feel a little bit less evil, writing,

“I think “niceness” is perfectly fine (I certainly strive to be nice to people) but it doesn’t go very deep. Niceness is a social construct — a mannered way of keeping things polite. You can be “nice” to someone while still sort of hating them … Niceness can be dishonest, and sometimes has to be dishonest — just to keep the peace … To a large extent, basic human niceness is what keeps the world functioning without us all strangling each other. At the base of niceness is a polite wish for everyone to just get along, damn it, and therefore I’m all for it.”

A separate article by Marcia Sirota on Linked In proposes:

“The solution for the nice person is simple: (he) must stop looking outside himself for love and approval… Once (he) takes responsibility for (his) own self-worth, (he’ll) start working on developing his own positive self-regard. When (he) begins to love and accept himself, (he’ll) be able to let go of needing to please, and (he’ll) notice that interestingly, others are responding to (him) better. Eventually, without even thinking about it, (he’ll) shift from being nice to being kind.”

Ok, so there is hope!

Nice To Do Business With

How does all of this “nice” bashing translate into the behavior in business? In my client and colleague interactions, I definitely strive to be nice in order to maintain a positive client relationship. I also respect and value the relationship, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with maintaining a “nice” approach to business interactions.

Last year I formed a joint venture with my colleague, Evelyn Powers. We brainstormed for names, and fell in love with “Nice Work” as the name of our partnership. We feel this name speaks to the quality of work we do: it is good work – it is nice work! It also describes the fact that we are nice and pleasant to work with. To us, this is a positive message. It wouldn’t be as effective if we called it “Kind Work.”

I don’t believe being “nice to work with” implies “fear, selfishness, greed, and the desire for power” or that it makes you a push over. Nor do I believe that being nice or kind has to always be a “deep” behavior. Social media is a place where “nice” is appreciated for what it is – often relatively shallow. We feel like we are doing something “nice” when we like a post or comment – and we often feel good when we see someone has liked something we posted. Jason Tucker of WPBlab recently started a campaign #LikeShareBecauseYouCare to encourage more supportive interaction on social media – this is “nice” … but is it “kind?” And if it is merely “nice” … what’s wrong with that?

Kind is Not The Opposite of Nice

I consider myself to be an introspective, thoughtful and intelligent person. I have to admit that this new knowledge has unsettled me a bit, and I wonder if I have been living under a rock or with some great sense of self-delusion. I admit to being a self-conscious person who highly values what others think of me, so I am now doing some self-reflection on the motivation behind my focus on being “nice.” I am sure I do feel better about myself if I feel I have been nice to others, even if they were not nice to me. I believe part of being “nice” is being polite, which may not be “genuine” but it’s also not bad. Perhaps I have confused the words and meaning of “nice” and “kind” my whole life. Or perhaps I am a disingenuous, insecure, manipulative, ignorant coward, as described in a blog post cited above. I hope not.

Thankfully, there is some evidence that “nice” can be a good thing. In business, being nice can make you happier, if not more successful. Cindi Bigelow, the president of Bigelow Tea, wrote about raising “nice” kids in this story in the Huffington Post, and describes niceness as a virtue. This article states that, “If being “nice” means feeling more joyful and better about ourselves in the long run, we’ll gladly take the label.”

Finally, thank you to Emma Straud, aka “the nicest person on the internet” for sharing her thoughts on being nice (even though the article is entitled “Kindness Really Does Count”). She says,

“It does not make you an evil and calculating person to be nice with a goal in mind.”

Best of all, she explains that “ The real key is this: being a nice person includes being good to yourself.

Being a nice person includes being good to yourself Share on X

I am adopting a Strategy of Kindness

I realize this sounds calculating and goes against the idea that Kindness is some inherent character trait some people are born with. I believe I AM a kind person, and that my desire to be nice derives from my natural tendency to be kind.

When I say I am adopting a “Strategy” of Kindness, I mean that I intend to be more mindful about my “nice” behavior and to consider whether it is deriving from good, kind intentions, or fake, disingenuous tendencies. Most importantly, this strategy also includes paying more attention to being kind to myself. I take pretty good care of myself physically, and I do lots of fun things and have tons of blessings in my life. But I realize I am not very nice to myself in my own head (you may be one of the many people who have told me this). I am hard on myself. I am not nice or kind to myself in my head. I hope that engaging in a more thoughtful practice of respecting myself more will help move me away from the more negative “nice” behavior to “nice” behavior that is rooted in kindness, not in fear.

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