There is a big difference between being nice and being kind. In a nutshell, being nice makes you feel good, but being kind is an act of doing good. Those words can, occasionally, look the same from the outside, but only in the most trivial of actions. A little look under the hood of “nice” and it is often outright harmful or cruel.
Being Nice is Easy, not Virtuous
Frequent readers of mine (all three of you) know that I use this expression a lot: We all want to look good far more than we want to be good. Being nice is almost exclusively an act of trying to look good. The art of being nice is basically a set of external social behaviors that require little-to-no effort, but of which we can pat ourselves on the back for with great self-gratification.
When we tell the waiter the food is “great” even though we hate it, we feel nice. When we tell our friend we love their haircut even though it looks terrible, we think we are being nice. When we say, “oh, wherever” when someone asks us where we want to eat, we think we are being nice. In reality, these things are often just passive-aggressive, conflict-avoiding, and frankly unhealthy behaviors.
Kindness Does Not Expect Payback
The easiest way to know if you are being nice or being kind is if you are expecting something in return. Do you wave, “good morning” to someone walking by and then get mad when they don’t wave back? Do you hold the door open for someone and get upset when they don’t say, “thanks” as they pass? If you get offended when people don’t offer you praise for being “nice” then you can be certain you aren’t being kind.
Being kind to someone means that the only thing on your mind is another person’s well-being when you act. Kindness means that you do something for the benefit of another, without needing a return or payback. Niceness is how we try to climb the social ladder, but kindness is how we lift up others.
Being Kind Doesn’t Always Feel Nice
If your friend’s breath stinks today, and you don’t tell them, you may feel like you are being nice. However, at some point, they will find out and wonder why you, someone they feel safe with, didn’t tell them. They will feel embarrassed, and even more, they will not trust you with feedback moving forward.
And yes, saying something like “Dang Julie, your breath is terrible!” is probably outright mean. However, saying, “Hey Julie, I want to warn you that your breath is a bit stale today” is genuinely a kind service. It feels scary, you worry you might offend them, but it is most helpful. Doing this also means she will continue to rely on you for honest feedback.
Kindness is Better than “Tough Love”
I have written before on how much I hate the culture and abuse behind the words “tough love.” What we call “tough love” is often a giving up on being nice. When we have done everything we can to be nice to someone, and we don’t get the results we want, we free ourselves of a sense of obligation by falling back on a rationalization of “well, I’ve done all I can do, time for some tough love.”
Kindness doesn’t wear out, in part because it doesn’t require the constant effort of pretending to be nice. Kindness is OK with establishing proper boundaries, and clearly communicating those boundaries. Kindness is OK getting embarrassed by someone else’s behavior because kindness isn’t worried about image. Being nice is often a way we try to control others and manage the world around us, kindness gives up control and only looks for ways to help.
Being Nice is a Burden, Kindness is a Blessing
Being nice can wear you out and make you a cynical jerk. It takes so much effort to suppress your feelings and thoughts in the hopes of saying just the right thing to get people to like you. So when you are tired and frustrated at the end of the day, all you can do is think about how no one gave you enough credit for all the nice things you did or kept yourself from doing.
Kindness is liberating. Instead of worrying about what people think of you, you look for ways you can be genuinely helpful, and no more. It may feel bad at the moment, but after a while, you learn that people come to trust you and everyone starts letting their guard down. You don’t have to live every day putting on a show; you can just live and do your best. In the end, that’s all most of us want to do anyway.