I’m suspicious of nice people.
Or, to be precise, people who have niceness as an ideal.
Sure, I know some people are just naturally that way (I’m not). They’d score high on the agreeableness scale of the Big Five personality inventory (I don’t). They’re easy to like (you decide if I am), the kind who if there was a fight, nobody would believe it was their fault. You know the people I mean. You probably like them too.
So what’s my problem?
Well, to put it simply, idealising niceness is about the self, making it a shadow of kindness, which is about others.
Wanting to be a nice person is really about wanting to be liked. You know how you can tell? Nice people often avoid confrontation, even when it’s necessary. Confrontation is decidedly not nice. It doesn’t feel good (except you’re the kind of person who actually enjoys it, which is a different issue), and it definitely doesn’t leave the person on the receiving end with warm feelings about you. But sometimes it’s necessary, and the willingness to recognise those times and do it even when you don’t feel like is one sign of real maturity.
(Did I mention I’m also suspicious of an enjoyment of being confrontational?)
The point is a focus on niceness is really a focus on the self. It’s about me wanting to be seen a particular way, and doing what I can to promote that while avoiding whatever might endanger it. It’s all about self-image. That’s how niceness can be cruel: because it can be a lot more selfish than it appears.
And I should know, because I used to be that person. It was how I lived the first two decades of my life. I was a people pleaser—or at least I wanted to be if my clumsiness didn’t keep getting in the way. It’s hard to really succeed at pleasing people when you repeatedly break the china, lose your friends’ nice pens and trip over yourself. I tried to make up for that by being quick to say sorry so I suppose something good came out of that.
Then in my early twenties I came to faith and started reading the Bible, and the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. He was not exactly a nice man: he loudly and strongly criticised people in authority, and at one point made a massive scene in a house of worship, and ended up annoying people so much they went all out to get him killed. And yet I found him compelling in his compassion.
He was not nice—he was something much more: he was kind.
The difference: doing things for the best of others, not myself and my image.
Perhaps the story that’s best captured this of late is Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. If you have access to it and haven’t seen it, drop everything and check it out as soon as you can. (The first episode is alright, but I promise you’ll be hooked by the third.)
It’s basically the story of a man who sincerely tries to be kind, but keeps being mistaken as simply nice. (He’s also mistaken as simply optimistic, when he’s actually a person of hope—a distinction I explore in a previous essay.)
One of my favourite things about the show is how it is aware of the difference between nice and kind. And it shows that by a slight sleight of hand: at the start I thought Lasso was merely a nice, optimistic man, but gradually realised there was a lot more depth. And then it hit me that it wasn’t the show pretending, it was me falling for the stereotypes and seeing niceness where kindness actually was.
One clue to this early in the show is when Ted says of another character:
“He thinks he’s mad now. Wait till we win him over”.
When I first heard that I thought it was one of those things you hear from relentlessly optimistic people, the kind that makes you roll your eyes and want to gag. Then like with many things from Ted Lasso, you quickly come to realise that not only did he really mean it, but it was a great assessment of the situation. He recognised that winning the other person over would very likely come with getting them upset, but that was not going to stop him, because it wasn’t about what made Ted feel good, but what would be best for them.
It wasn’t a personality trait, it wasn’t naivete, it was choice.
Which is the other thing about being nice versus being kind. In my essay comparing optimism and hope, I said that it’s easy to be optimistic when you don’t know a lot, and the more you know the harder it is. Hope on the other hand is not a personality trait but a choice you make.
Maybe not everyone can be nice, but anyone can be kind.
And more importantly, you can be kind to anyone.
As Ted says in one episode: I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone and being sad. Ain’t no one in this room alone.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite scenes from Ted Lasso (mild spoilers):