When I was in my sophomore year of college, a close friend asked me to describe her in one word. When I told her that the word “Nice” came to mind, she was visibly disappointed – she wanted me to use any other word because “nice” didn’t mean much to her. Of course, I was confused by her reaction. Didn’t people want to be nice? Through most of high school and the first year of college, I heard most people described me by that one word as well, and I had never felt disappointed by it. After all, we’ve all been raised to think that nice is a good thing.
Looking back, I realize now why my friend was disappointed. I’ve now met a decent amount of people, and heard these people describe a multitude of other people too. It seems that the first word we use when describing someone is always “nice”:
“He’s such a nice guy, he’s done so much…”
“She’s so nice, super driven…”
“He’s nice, but sometimes he can be an asshole”
No matter where the sentence goes, it usually starts with nice. These days, nice has become a minimum requirement, written into the social contract of modern American interactions, as opposed to something we should strive to be. Society requires “nice-ness” of us when it demands that we all be politically correct. Society also requires “nice-ness” of us when we conduct so much of our communication digitally – since every word is recorded and scrutinized, we’re forced to be much more polite and deliberate. So when my friend in college was disappointed to be described primarily as nice, that’s because nice only meant she had met the bare minimum. Nice just meant that she could have friends and fit into society, but it certainly shouldn’t have defined her as a person.
Now, time for a disclaimer: I’m not saying that being nice is a bad thing. It’s certainly a good thing that society is more accepting and polite. I believe that I’m privileged to spend my time around people that are nice by default. Plenty of mean people exist in the world, people who are racist or bigoted or enjoy inflicting pain on others.
But keeping in mind the general populace that actually tries to be nice, I just have a suggestion: let’s strive to be kind, not just nice.
What’s the difference between nice and kind? If you check the dictionary, you won’t find much to separate the two. But the way I see it: “nice” is a demeanor we adopt because society requires it, and “kind” is how we act when we truly look to help others. In another sense, the line between nice and kind is often drawn by one thing: honest intention. A nice person may have good intention, but acts “fake” at times because society requires it, while the kind person’s good intentions are always backed up by honesty. It’s actually easy to be nice, to say something that you know will be accepted, even if you don’t mean it. It’s much harder to be someone with the reputation of meaning what they say. When your friend dresses badly for a night out, it’s easy and nice to tell him he looks good. On the other hand, it’s a lot harder to be kind enough to tell that person the truth – but your caring and honesty are often appreciated in the long run. [A personal aside: I might practice kindness a little too much when my Mom asks whether she looks fat in a certain dress.]
When we act kind, we take time out of our day to help someone who needs us. When we act kind, we improve ourselves and the world around us. When we act kind, we go above and beyond what society expects of us. It’s not a requirement, but that’s what makes it so important. Kindness is something we can all strive to implement more in our lives.
If the distinction is still unclear, consider the following example:
You’re walking down a busy street in Austin, TX, near the University of Texas campus. Cars pass by on the road and people are walking up and down the sidewalk, brushing past you while looking at their phone or chatting with their friends. You’re catching up with a friend while walking, someone you haven’t seen in months, so you’re pretty absorbed in the conversation. Both you and your friend are carrying some leftover food from the restaurant you just left. As you walk halfway up one block, you notice a homeless person sitting near a dumpster, and he asks you for food or change. Let’s see how different categories of people react:
You loudly refuse to help the homeless person and scream at him to get a job. Alternatively, you completely ignore this homeless person’s existence. Either way, you can’t believe he would interrupt the conversation you and your friend were having.
You politely tell the homeless person that you can’t give him any food today (you need your leftovers for later). You feel bad for a second, but you continue talking to your friend and soon forget. Alternatively, if you have any coin money, you give that to him since you don’t have much need for coins anyway.
You gladly offer your leftovers, and your friend’s, to the homeless man. You ask him if he needs anything to drink with that and give him any small change if you have it.
Alternatively, you do what my close friend did recently in real life.
I was actually catching up with my friend Zabin in Austin earlier this month, when we walked past a homeless man sleeping next to a dumpster. I hadn’t even noticed him, but Zabin promptly stopped, and I asked what was wrong. She wanted to buy the homeless man some dinner to eat when he woke up. Amazed by her kindness, I followed her across the street to Jimmy John’s where she proceeded to buy a sandwich and water for the man. Before leaving it securely next to the sleeping homeless man, she took the time to write a note, which I took a picture of for my own memory:
When I witnessed my friend’s need to help a fellow human being, I was touched and inspired equally. It matters little if Zabin had been nice to everyone she met on that day – I don’t care too much whether she was careful to be polite and politically correct every moment. Because for one moment, she went above and beyond what anyone really expected her to do as a member of society. And she single-handedly made someone’s day as a result.
There’s a simple way to think of all this: “Nice” is what we do for ourselves, to fit in and feel good about ourselves. “Kind” is what we do for others, to make them feel good. I hope we can all feel inspired to add a moment of kindness to our week or month. Let’s strive to go above and beyond nice.
Have you found good ways to add moments of kindness to your life? Do you disagree with the above? Please comment below!