Kindness can strengthen relationships, build inclusive communities, and positively impact business.
The terms “kindness” and “niceness” are often used interchangeably. This is a mistake. There is a profound distinction between the two, by definition and in practice. “Nice” is often used as a catch-all term associated with being pleasant, agreeable, polite, and compliant. Kindness goes beyond the surface level and involves genuine care, empathy, and respect.
This article explores the problem of being excessively nice and advocates for kindness that transforms relationships, communities, and businesses.
Previously, I prided myself on being a nice guy, but my niceness historically led to disillusionment and heartbreak. I would easily agree with what others preferred or proposed, adjusting my calendar and preferences accordingly. In retrospect, these choices were made to avoid conflict, rejection, or being disliked by others. I wanted to please everyone so that I could be liked by everyone. And of course, we know that is impossible and leads to frustration.
The Problem of Being Too Nice
While being nice seems like a desirable trait, it comes with several consequences. One of the main problems with being nice is pleasing others first and ignoring our personal needs, opinions, and boundaries.
Excessive niceness often stems from a fear of disappointing others, causing conflict, or facing rejection. This can lead to disempowerment and vulnerability, creating a power dynamic where individuals may become susceptible to manipulation, exploitation, and abuse. Research by Christine Reyes Loya suggests that agreeable people in the workplace are more likely to experience harassment, bullying, and mistreatment. Similarly, being overly nice in personal relationships can put people in vulnerable positions of being exploited or dominated.
In her book, The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome, clinical psychologist and best selling author, Harriet B. Braiker, PhD wrote “Niceness is the psychological armor of the people-pleaser.” A people-pleaser is “deeply attached to seeing themselves ― and to being certain that others see them ― as nice people.”
Our upbringing, educational institutions, and societal norms have ingrained the value of niceness in us. Family, schools, religious institutions, and even children’s games, literature, and music perpetuate the notion of being nice. However, as a recent parent, I aim to raise my children to be kind rather than nice. I want them to embody qualities such as goodness, love, thoughtfulness, respect, joy, and assertiveness, without being nice to others to gain acceptance or approval.
Love is Kind
While kindness seems like a buzzword these days, it is not new. It has been a topic of interest since the age of ancient philosophers and prophets as well as in modern studies of psychology and religion.
Aristotle defined kindness in Book II of Rhetoric as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.” He is often quoted as saying: “It is the characteristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favour, but to be ready to do kindness to others.”
Plato was emphatic and emotional in tune with the need of others when he wrote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Kindness is a central theme in the Bible and considered one of the nine “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control.”
The Apostle Paul, In 1 Corinthians 13:4, states, “Love is patient, love is kind”. The act of loving cannot exist without kindness as love is kind. The rest of the passage is important as it expands on Paul’s definition of love and how its shaped by kindness: “… It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor 13:5-7).” Notice that the Apostle did not describe a love that is nice, but a love that is kind and truly transforming and authentic.
Modern psychologists and social scientists have further explored the consequences of excessive niceness, such as people-pleasing behaviors and boundary issues and the transformative power of kindness. Research has shown that kindness may be the most important predictor of stability and satisfaction in marriage. As our society continues to evolve, we are more aware of the importance of authenticity, personal empowerment, and healthy relationships.
Kindness over Niceness in Practice
Hopefully, the next time someone tells you to “be nice,” you will understand the true meaning behind their words. Let’s examine some examples with the words of French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in mind: “Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.”
- A nice person might say to a sick neighbor, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling unwell,” a kind person would go the extra mile and drop off some food or groceries to provide practical support.
- A nice teacher or mentor may glance at your artwork and say, “Nice work,” but a kind person would offer constructive criticism that you may not like, but will genuinely help you improve your craft.
- A nice individual might choose to ignore or pretend they didn’t hear a racial slur, a sexist joke, or a demeaning comment in the workplace or among friends, just to avoid conflict and keep the peace. In contrast, a kind person would question the humor behind such remarks, saying, “Why is this funny?” They would respectfully confront the speaker, not only for their personal growth but also for the group’s betterment. This exemplifies how kindness is benevolent.
- In a school setting, a nice peer might privately connect with someone who is being bullied, saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. Be strong.” Conversely, a kind person would speak up or stand at the moment, confronting the bullies or seeking the assistance of a teacher to intervene.
As illustrated in the examples above, being “nice” accomplishes very little in terms of effecting change in the status quo. However, kindness transforms you into an ally and a change agent. It empowers you to stand up against any type of abuse, gender-based violence, sexual assault, and the everyday microaggressions we encounter.
By choosing kindness, we become catalysts for positive transformation. We actively work towards creating a more just and inclusive society, making a difference in the lives of those affected by discrimination and oppression. Kindness moves beyond empty words or gestures, fostering empathy, understanding, and actionable change.
Kindness goes a long way
Grounded in compassion, genuine empathy, and respect for others, kindness holds tremendous potential for positive change. As stated above, choosing kindness over niceness can bring about profound transformations in relationships, communities, and business.
- Relationships: Kindness fosters healthier and more fulfilling relationships. Kindness creates an environment where trust can flourish. Kindness promotes open communication, conflict resolution, and the building of mutually supportive connections.
- Communities: Kindness is a catalyst for positive change in communities. A study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that witnessing acts of kindness can have a contagious effect, inspiring others to engage in prosocial behavior (voluntary behavior intended to benefit another). By practicing kindness in our communities, we can bridge divides, and work collectively towards a more inclusive society.
- Business: Kindness has not been part of the business vernacular until recently. Organizations that prioritize kindness foster healthier work environments, leading to enhanced job satisfaction, reduced turnover, and increased performance. Kindness can boost morale and productivity in the workplace.
The distinction between kindness and niceness does not necessarily imply an “either/or” scenario. While it is possible to exhibit both kindness and niceness in certain situations, understanding their distinctions is crucial.
Kindness runs deeper and adds way more value to the giver as much as the receiver.
Choosing kindness over niceness can yield transformative outcomes, strengthen relationships, build inclusive communities, and positively impact business cultures.
Kindness is a force for positive change in the world.
Be kind, not nice.