The word “nice” is defined in the dictionary as one who is likeable, pleasant, or kind. It’s such a simple word — one of the first we learn to describe something we like or find pleasing. But today’s definition of “nice” has shifted into entirely new territory.
“Be nice” — it’s one of the first things we’re taught by our mothers growing up, especially as little girls. Any sign of a dispute, small or large, between us and a sibling, and we’d immediately hear “Be nice to your little sister!” resounding from the other room. And a few years later, as we started school, our teacher would reinforce the importance of being nice, drilling the age-old saying into our heads, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Here’s the thing: they weren’t wrong to teach us that treating others with kindness and respect were essential to learn if we wanted to grow up to be decent human beings. Being nice is one of the most important qualities a person can have, and it can affect the course of their life dramatically — we all want to surround ourselves and work with people who are thoughtful, kind, and respectful, right?
And today, being accepting and loving towards others seems to be more critical than ever before. Our collective esteem of empathy has increased tremendously, with countless Millennials and Gen Zers touting their identities as empaths, allies, and defenders of the underdogs of society, to the point where empathy is treated as somewhat of a superpower. But in our effort to show care for others — to be nice — we’ve shifted the meaning of being nice into something else entirely.
How Being Nice Became Being a Pushover
Somewhere along the way between learning the value of simply being nice to others as children and our culture’s current posture towards empathy, we altered the purpose and meaning of niceness into being all-accepting, tolerant of anything and everything, and frankly, being total pushovers.
We altered the meaning of niceness into being all-accepting, tolerant of anything and everything.
Today, being nice doesn’t mean being cordial, thoughtful, or polite — it means, in full agreement with, unquestioning, and without values of our own to guide us. We’ve reached a point at which being nice is synonymous with being willing to allow others to decide the morals and views we ought to live by, and never once challenging an idea that goes against what we stand for; in short, being complete and total people-pleasers. But is that really what being nice is all about?
Why Our Current Definition of Nice Isn’t All That Nice
It might feel nicer in the moment to care more about harmony and keeping everyone happy than pausing to consider if an action or idea lines up with our own morals and values, or if it even benefits anyone involved — it’s certainly easier. Being somewhat of a people-pleaser myself, I bristle at the thought of contributing to unrest, often preferring to fall in line and maintain peace than confront an issue head-on — being direct can be terrifying.
Being the ultimate people-pleaser doesn’t actually make us nice — it just makes us pushovers.
However, being the ultimate people-pleaser doesn’t actually make us nice, in any sense of the word — it just makes us pushovers, effectively making us bad friends. It’s not nice to see a friend making huge mistakes with a guy and refrain from saying anything in the name of supporting her empowerment; it isn’t kind to watch our sister foster an unhealthy habit or addiction and never talk to her about it so as not to hurt her feelings; it’s not empathetic to encourage someone’s harmful behavior because they’re upset about something. To enable a person’s damaging behavior, even if it’s understandable behavior, is the furthest thing from nice.
The Art of Being Nice While Sticking to Our Values
Despite our culture’s narrative about what it means to be nice, we aren’t required to agree with everything someone says or does in order to be polite or kind to them. This is actually wonderful news, because this grants us the ability to have honest, open, and kind conversations, no matter the diversity in thought and lifestyle we’re faced with. It also gives us the opportunity to practice true kindness, an act that’s supposed to actually challenge us.
What shows true niceness is our capacity to thoughtfully, respectfully, and constructively engage with varying opinions and values, all while having our own ideals that we faithfully adhere to and personal boundaries we won’t cross. It’s this show of maturity that we should ultimately be striving for, not a society that’s too scared or nervous to have disagreements and uncomfortable discussions for fear of not being “nice.” This is only possible when we challenge ourselves to see others as more than just a collection of beliefs we either agree or disagree with, but rather, people with inherent value and reasons for holding their beliefs, who are worth engaging with.
Enabling a person’s damaging behavior, even if it’s understandable, is the furthest thing from nice.
It’s nicer to let our friend know she might be hurting herself by participating in a casual relationship; it’s kinder to confront our sister’s unhealthy addiction by letting her know we care and want better for her; it’s more empathetic to encourage someone to channel their outrage into something more effective than anger. To be nice, kind, and polite is to attempt to challenge and inspire the people in our lives to be better.
Being nice is much more than just nodding our head or invariably agreeing with everyone we come into contact with. True niceness actually takes being firm, confident, and committed to a better world.