Nice – (adjective) 1. Pleasant, enjoyable or attractive. 2. Used before adjectives or adverbs to emphasize how pleasant something is.
Kind – (adjective) 1. Having or showing a friendly, generous, or considerate nature.
No, this isn’t a vocabulary lesson. It’s just some food for thought. I’d like to propose a hypothesis: Niceness is overrated. It’s a quality that is touted over and over again by just about everyone you meet. You hear all the time about how nice or not nice someone is, men who consider themselves nice are forever complaining about why their niceness doesn’t get them anywhere with the opposite sex, the phrase “nice guys finish last” refuses to die, and there are diatribes and screeds and treatises written on the subject of niceness and all that it entails. Nice is almost always considered a good quality to possess (unless it isn’t getting you any sweet poonanny), and too many people use it as a yardstick to measure social worth. If you’re a woman, niceness is almost as important as sex appeal. There is a huge taboo against being too outspoken or aggressive if you’re in possession of ovaries. It’s considered very, very Not Nice, and is a huge social crime.
As I get older and gain more life experience, I find myself increasingly baffled by our fixation on niceness. Many brilliant, empathetic, and deeply kind people aren’t what you would call “nice.” Even though the words ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ are pretty close synonyms (okay, I guess this sort of is a vocabulary lesson), they are not identical terms, and nuance makes a big difference here. Nice is a veneer. Of course it’s pleasant to interact with a nice person, and some people are born with the lacquer of niceness already applied, but nobody really needs to be nice, do they? I mean, in their personal lives, not professionally. Think of the smartest person you know, for instance. Is she/he particularly nice? I’ll bet she/he isn’t. What about the most successful person you know? The most talented? Anyone who is unduly preoccupied with the concept and value of niceness needs a priority check. Niceness is so shallow, so material. My car is nice, my house is nice, my neighborhood is nice. Do I really need nice people to go with those things? Nice little people who say and do what I want them to? Nice little people that accentuate my nice little life like decorative rugs? Many people who are nice are not kind, and vice versa. Kindness is more about being considerate toward others and doing the right thing. Niceness is more about being polite and inoffensive. Is there some overlap? Heck yes! But we’re intelligent, discerning grown-ups here, so let’s pull out the microscope and take a closer look.
One of the most annoying things about society is that it is slowly being commandeered by a generation that grew up with paper thin egos. Those of us who are in the process of inheriting America from the Baby Boomers were subjected to parenting styles and children’s programming that focused on building self-esteem. On the surface, that sounds great, because childhood can be hell for those of us who are shy or weird or don’t fit in for some reason, and aggressively discouraging bullying is a noble thing for society to pursue. I’ll be the first to say it: bullying is extremely damaging and no child deserves that kind of cruelty. The problem is that not all peer critique is bullying, and constantly telling your children that they're the smartest, bestest, most perfect human beings on the planet gives them a completely unrealistic view of themselves and others. I’m not sure if Sesame Street and Dr. Spock are to blame for what happened to us all, but somewhere along the way we grew up and forgot the difference between reasonable people calling us out on our flaws and assholes viciously gnawing on our sense of self-worth. Thusly we now have a generation of adults that is obsessed with the idea of “niceness,” where niceness is really just shorthand for “never saying anything that upsets me.”
I don’t want to go too far into comedian territory here (e.g. everyone needs to grow a thicker skin and stop being so PC), but it seems that a whole fuck ton of people have lost the ability to differentiate between genuine cruelty and normal social competition. Everyone is so used to the concept of getting an A for effort and being given a trophy just for participating, we have failed to grow the type of thick skin that we actually need to have. We deflect criticism that could help us improve. We take every perceived slight way too seriously. If someone takes a sarcastic jab at you, laugh it off or respond in kind. Don’t get butt hurt and scream about how mean and nasty that person is. You’re an adult. You can defend yourself and move on with your life. If some woman fails to smile at you, don’t chide her for having “resting bitch face.” What’s wrong with you? Even if she actually is a bitch, how is that any skin off your nose? If you’re offended every time someone doesn’t fall all over themselves showing you how grateful they are to be graced by your presence, you need to retreat to a mountaintop and do some serious self-reflecting. Maybe you’re utterly clueless in social situations and you always creep people out by being awkward. Don’t freak when someone helpfully points that out, and don’t seethe with rage when you’re quietly ignored. Is it nice for someone to tell you that you suck at life or that they’re not attracted to you? Not really, but is it necessary? Um, depending on the circumstances, absolutely yes. I’m not saying we should all go around busting each other’s balls at every opportunity, but this expectation to handle everyone’s egos with kid gloves at all times is a form of cultural insanity. Some people’s egos really, really do not need to be pampered and fluffed. Some people’s egos are in danger of collapsing under their own weight.
One of the worst things about this kind of social climate is that it hasn’t done anything to curtail bullying. All that’s happened is that people who have no natural inclination to bully others are now overly self-conscious and sensitive, and those those who do have an inclination toward bullying are finding it easier than ever to attain their objectives. And as always, the people who are bullied most are the underclass and disenfranchised. Gay people are scrutinized and denied, trans people are discriminated against, obese people are discriminated against, institutional racism is alive and healthy, and the list just goes on and on. Women are unfairly “taken down a notch” all the goddamn time, while men scream about every tiny little ego infraction they suffer or imagine they suffer. Privileged, white, heterosexual men consider being disagreed with a form of abuse. This bizarre focus on niceness has just given society yet another tool with which to bludgeon second-class citizens into submission. You can just label that troublesome woman or black person with a synonym for “not nice,” and endlessly howl about how they did you wrong by expressing themselves, and other people will listen and take it seriously. There’s this ridiculous expectation for everyone who isn’t a straight white guy to be affable, non-threatening, and downright obsequious. If you’re a member of the underclass who gains a reputation for being angry or difficult…oh boy. Society will fucking shit all over you. It doesn’t matter how apropos your anger might be. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been genuinely failed by your community of if someone has genuinely harmed you. If you’re not a member of the privileged class, you’re supposed to take it all on the chin and remain “nice,” because if you’re not nice, you’re worthless.
And yes, this phenomenon also plays into the anti-PC movement, because the main proponents of that shit are – you guessed it – straight white guys. Politicians and comedians are the two groups most guilty of saying wildly insensitive things in public forums and then responding to their detractors with confusion and defensiveness. Please take a moment to reflect on exactly how straight, white, and male those groups tend to be. Look at how many senators, governors, and presidential hopefuls shamelessly proclaim things that are sexist, racist, classist, and just plain awful, and then react with surprise when there’s a backlash. Look at how many comedians tell “jokes” that are sexist, racist, classist, and just plain awful, and then react with surprise when their audience doesn’t contain any women, minorities, or gay people. Remember when Daniel Tosh told a shitty rape joke and then exploded and went on a misogynist tirade when some woman told him it wasn’t funny? Remember when Mitt Romney openly declared that he didn’t care about poor people and then couldn’t understand why poor people didn’t want to vote for him? What’s going on here? Don’t these people realize that we live in a Nice Society now, and that if you want people to like you, you have to be very careful not to upset them? Well, no. They don’t realize that, because the rules don’t apply to them. Niceness is for losers, so to speak. Niceness is for people who have no means of forcing people to do what they want.
You can sort of see this at work in the dating world, too. Among straight men, there’s a very persistent theory that niceness is only for men who can’t attract women through looks and charisma. Niceness is something that men “resort” to when they’re too unattractive or awkward to effortlessly bag hotties simply by existing. It's a transparent mask worn by people who either have nothing else to offer the world or are browbeaten into because society will fucking tear them to shreds if they don’t mind their Ps and Qs. Meanwhile, the powers that be are free to be as cruel and insensitive as they please. In other words, they bully the rest of us.
I propose a mass rejection of niceness. Unless it’s something that is really just intrinsic to your personality and is inviolable, let’s all stop worrying about it. There are more important personality traits to emphasize, like courage, intelligence, fairness, productivity, and honesty. Let's build a society that combats bigotry and bullying, and values honesty and altruism over noncommittal inoffensiveness. Let's stop enabling the tyranny of thin-skinned oppressors.