Rethinking “Nice”

I’ve always known it’s a lazy word.

But it’s such a nice word. Works so well for a huge variety of situations and people. And certainly it’s been a gauge to measure my behavior, and that of others, particularly my children.

“Be nice now.”  “Let’s play nice.”  “Is so-and-so nice?”

Oh, and how about the ubiquitous, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

And the cynical side:  “Nice guys finish last.”

But really, nice? What does it mean?

In the last couple of weeks everywhere I turn – be it an article, a conversation, or a blog post,  I find a new indictment of “nice.” And it’s got me thinking – maybe all this being nice is not so, well, nice after all.

My new friend Ellen over at The Hairy Edge rips into ‘Nice’ so hard it made my hair stand up on end!

I don’t really want to think about this. It sends all the fire alarms clanging in my Lizard Brain.

I love being a nice person. I love that people like me and say that I’m nice. It’s so safe, so comfy when people like me. I mean if they don’t like me, I’m worthless, right?

So being Nice means I get to feel worthwhile.

Uh, yeah – and also bland, boring, and ready to let bolder, more ambitious folks walk all over me. And then they get to have all the fun, make all the money, kiss all the cute guys/girls – and yes, get their hearts scraped up a bit more.

Cos that’s the thing about Being Nice. You’re protected from all that pain.

I’m getting a little sick of being Nice. As I walk further down this Menopausal/Midlife path, my hackles are rising with each nod and smile.

It used to be my mantra for getting through many an uncomfortable situation – whether I can’t stand the person, can’t understand what the f**k they’re talking about, or just plain don’t give a shit.

Just nod and smile till they go away.

Easy, yes. But at what cost? How many little bits of me have withered away with all those nods and smiles? How many opportunities to make magic with the people who really get me squandered?

It’s interesting, since I’ve started observing how ‘nice’ works in my life I’m appalled at how prominently the word figures into conversations. And how positively. It’s not just me – ‘nice’ falls from the lips of everyone around me.

A friend is dating “a nice guy” – finally someone decent. We all nod approvingly.

I mean after all, this is about the best thing we can say about a guy. If he’s nice, it means he’s not an aggressive asshole. But couldn’t there be a better way to say it? Nice?? And let’s not even get into the inherent reverse sexism here. (Guilty as charged.)

We pat ourselves on the back because we were “nice about it” when we had to deal with an obdurate employee or an obnoxious sales caller. Rather than yell and rail at the poor sucker, we are nice. After all, it’s not their fault they have a shitty job.

We stay at ‘nice places’, we take ‘nice trips’, we attend ‘nice events.’ And when we want to dial up the compliment, well then something is ‘really nice.’

My question now is this:  What are we really trying to express when we say that someone or something is “nice?”

Kind? Generous? Compassionate? Fun? Helpful? Interesting? Or Walk-All-Overable?

Sometimes, it’s just lazy talk. We use nice when we just don’t want to dig around for a more accurate and expressive word.

Other times we use ‘nice’ because we don’t want to admit that the person or experience actually kind of sucked. It’s a bland way of staying positive, of keeping that Happy Face plastered on.

Now I still believe in the power and benefit of positive thinking. Half-full glasses are far more pleasant to contemplate than half-empty ones. But must we use empty platitudes?

As I’m writing this, I’m getting more and more worried.

Does this mean I have to turn into a complaining shrew? I don’t think so. Kindness and Compassion are still  important values for me. But I don’t have to play small and plaster on a Smile Face to practice lovingkindness and compassion.

It’s dawning on me that sometimes it’s kinder to tell the truth (even if it hurts) than to make nice and lie. Of course I’ve heard this bit of wisdom before, but I’m finally getting it.

And good goddess that scares the shit out of me!

And at the same time I’m ready to give up this lame need to be liked at all costs. At least I think I am.

Just like I’m tired of being well-behaved, I’m DONE with nice!

My Inner Bitch is rising, and no amount of frantic lizard brain squelching is going to keep her down. Watch out!

What do you think? Do you pride yourself on being a “nice” person and is that a good thing? Is “Nice” a four-letter word, or is it a compliment? Am I full of baloney, or is it time to kick “Nice” to the curb?

Or maybe you think I should just shut up and be nice? Give it to me – don’t worry about being nice!

Image by dannybirchall.

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Showing 26 comments
  • ellenjberg

    This–>>> “How many little bits of me have withered away with all those nods and smiles?”—gave me goosebumps. Yes and amen. The truth is always kinder than a lie as long as it comes from a place of integrity. We often put the happy face on it so as not to have to deal with our own feelings about the situation, not because we spared the other person’s feelings. Nope. Tell the truth and tell it well is my mantra.

    • Sarah

      I can see you will be half inspiration and half kick in the butt in my life Ellen! It’s much more of a challenge to tell the truth and face the fallout. But the alternative is that fakey happy face, and fewer and fewer real smiles inside. Good mantra!

  • Paige Burkes

    I’m learning that being nice isn’t always the way to go. My last year in the blogosphere has taught me that being nice and hoping everyone likes me is a sure-fire recipe for failure. Once I learned that lesson, I felt like I could finally let my hair down and say what I really feel, nice be damned! And it has worked out quite well.

    Maybe it’s just that time in life when we stop caring what others think of us. It’s finally time to be ourselves. Screw nice. Sarah – You’re awesome!!

    • Sarah

      That’s it Paige! I know I’ve reached that time in my life. And it’s scaring the hell out of me. Kind of like a free fall (as we’ve both been writing about.) I know in my heart that if I just stay true to who I really am and forget about ‘nice’ that I will take myself to places I’d only imagined before. Glad we’re on the path together!

  • Reply

    The kind of ‘nice’ you’re talking about…in my world when I show up that way people think there’s something wrong! And it’s not that I’m not nice; I’m just not nice in the vanilla-for-everyone kinda way 🙂

    • Sarah

      Ah, yes. Maybe we need to distinguish between vanilla-nice and dark chocolate running down your face kind of nice! I’ve always admire my Aries friends who have no trouble thumbing their nose at all these silly niceties!

  • bobbiemel164

    Nice post, Sarah.


    I couldn’t resist!

    I’m a “nice” person, too, and so it shocks me and everyone else when my head splits open and a monster pops out in reaction to some mysterious last straw that a poor unsuspecting person has managed to add to my pile. Nice goes out the window then!

    But I think there must be a balance somewhere and that’s what I’m in the process of finding.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Sarah.

    • Sarah

      I get that Bobbi! That’s exactly how it’s been for me for years. All of a sudden the lid blows off and Ms. Nice has flown the coop – much to everyone’s shock. I’m thinking it may be easier to just let off that steam of true feelings bit by bit – instead of enslaving myself to the tyranny of niceness…

  • Reply

    There are many words that are nice and boring. I definitely have been working to not just expand but create a more interesting dialogue. But it is really not that easy to do… old habits!

    I do agree with the group though, being nice for the sake of nice will not cut it any more. Personal integrity and responsibility lead us to be truth bearers.

    • Sarah

      Beautifully expressed Lori! Personal integrity does not always lead to a nice attitude.
      And playing nice keeps us playing small. But so true, those hold habits are hard to break. Now that I’ve written this I’m just waiting for someone to bust me the next time I act all ‘nice’!

  • Joel Zaslofsky

    Wow, I had no idea there was such a raging debate around “nice”. You’ll have to tell me where to find the pros and cons people are talking about in some other forum.
    I used to be the nice guy intentionally but now I am just who I am. Most of the time that’s still the nice guy but it’s no longer because I’m trying. Sometimes, I need to kick a little butt and I don’t feel bad anymore when I do. It’s liberating!

    • Sarah

      don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being a ‘nice guy’ Joel – it’s just the blandness of the word that’s getting to me. Being kind, generous, loving and caring are all good. And so is being truthful and staying in integrity with who you are. Suppressing our true selves in the name of being nice is what the debate’s all about. Thanks so much for your comment!

  • amitamin909219907

    This post gets me thinking in so many different directions, I don’t even know where to start…

    I was originally a nice guy, in the walk-all-over sense. My response took me to the other extreme; no, not becoming an asshole, but instead becoming uncaring – using kindness where it was useful, and being interesting and abrasive where that was useful. Neither approach is optimal. It takes some combination of the component parts of kindness – compassion, generosity, patience, and so on.

    Just focusing on the micro-example of dating – being interesting and abrasive got me a lot farther than being kind, but being abrasive cost me something. When in fact I did get what I want, it meant less to me, because the very nature of fighting kindness is insulating ourselves against our biological emotional responses. Well, that’s not exactly true, but its certainly more complicated than one trope or another.

    • Sarah

      Very thoughtful comment Amit. I’m thinking that the key is to be true to yourself, and to who you are at your core. If kindness is part of your true nature, then express it where it is appropriate and I think you will be respected and loved for that. You definitely don’t want to fight that and put a shell around your heart!

      And I can already tell you are interesting so show that too. But no need to be abrasive unless that is the energy you truly feel inside. I don’t believe you have to be abrasive to prevent being walked all over. Truthful yes, abrasive only if that’s part of your truth. Thanks again for your visit, I’m glad this post inspired some thinking!

  • kayleerupp

    LOL – I’m at work, and just had a patient leave. Of course I sent her off with a “have a nice day!” Yikes. I bet I say it way more often than I realize.

    This was a really cool post though, and it got me thinking. How often do we compromise our authenticity by “playing nice?” We don’t say how we really feel because it wouldn’t be nice. I guess it comes down to what we value more: being nice or being authentic. Can we be both at the same time? Ze wheels are turning…

    • Sarah

      Oh my goddess, Kaylee – now I’m going to be so busted for “have a nice day!” I say that ALL the time! Shoot! Time to think about a new way to add a pleasant parting remark to the person I’m conversing with.

      I’ve actually met Europeans and others who sneer at the American penchant for saying “Have a nice day” all the time, but till now I always found nothing wrong with it. And maybe there isn’t. The point, I guess, is to pay attention to what we mean when we say it – and to be authentic to what we’re really feeling. Usually I mean it when I tell that checkout clerk to ‘have a nice day.’ Hmmm, more to think on.

  • powerofchoice

    If it helps, I don’t like you already! 😛

    I was were you once were, always nice to people. I’ll give you a perfect example. Yesterday I got an email from someone, we had not spoken in years. The first thing they wanted was my help and support. The old me would’ve been like, sure, give me a call anytime. My approach is very different now. I was compassionate but firm, that if they want me to coach them, they’d have to pay life everyone else. It’s not ‘nice’ to do that, but I’m not out to be nice, If I don’t charge for my services, it leaves me in a position where I can’t help anyone.

    Don’t be nice, just be you!

    • Sarah

      You make a good point there! (Although my heart sank when I read your first line! Uh oh, I thought – that’s what not being nice gets me..:D)

      Seriously though, you make an excellent point about being clear about the what the exchange needs to be in the case of coaching or other services. It’s a perfect example of when being nice doesn’t serve anyone really. And I like this idea of ‘don’t be nice, just be me’. Sometimes being me is ‘nice’ (as in kind or thoughtful or compassionate) but sometimes it’s not so nice. The thing to remember is to be true to one’s self!

      Thanks for your comment and for visiting the blog!

  • Michelle

    I’m really enjoying the older you Sarah. I spent most of my life not being “nice” but being honest no matter what, which did not win me friends. Now that I’m a mother I spend much more time and energy thinking about the words that come out of my mouth in an attempt to be positive and not hurtful, to set a good example for my son. Maybe once I reach your age I’ll revert again 😉 The effort toward kindness and consideration is worth it in the end, I have many more positive interactions in the world that just make me feel better in general. I still have very firm boundaries for those I think are trying to take advantage, but try to be gentler with my vocabulary. My inner monologue I have learned is far less forgiving and will not be tamed.
    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself.

    • Sarah

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Michelle – and great to hear from you here! I do think there is always a balance with keeping our boundaries and practicing kindness. No need to push someone into a tailspin of tears in the name of eschewing ‘nice’! At the same time, why be nice just because we think that is how we’re supposed to be. You’ve always been someone I’ve admired for your willingness to say what you think and to call people on their s**t! And I’ll never forget the time you called me out for being too “nice” about the way I asked for something.

      “You’re my boss,” you said. “Don’t ask me if I ‘wanna’ to do that! Just TELL me to do it.” Wow – that got me thinking!

      I do like having positive interactions with the world – and sometimes it takes an effort for me to stand my ground and get in touch with my own boundaries and state them. Getting better and better all the time though. One of the perks of this whole aging thing!

  • LifeReview

    It sounds like your “Inner Bitch” could be quite empowering when you let her have her head 🙂

    • saraho

       @LifeReview Hah! Thanks for the encouragement! She’s getting excited about that.

  • LifeReview

    And I think it’s one of the great benefits of ‘middle age’ is giving up caring so much what what people think. It’s a gradual transition though.

    • saraho

       @LifeReview So true! It’s one of the perks of the whole middle age thing I think! Although I’ve noticed the transition IS gradual. I still find myself being ‘nice’ when I really don’t want to be. Less and less often though!

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