The Crucial Difference Between Niceness and Kindness

Niceness is about maintaining the status quo. Kindness is revolutionary.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

At the beginning of the pandemic, Gal Gadot produced a video featuring an array of celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It was supposed to be a declaration that we’re all suffering through this crisis together. But it didn’t exactly come off that way. As viewers watched the stars croon lyrics like “imagine no possessions” from their isolated mega-villas, those of us in the real world were losing our jobs, health insurance, homes, and loved ones. Many viewers described the video as “out of touch” and “cringe-worthy.”

Gadot insists she was just trying to do something nice! In a recent Vanity Fair cover story, she explained of the video, “Sometimes, you know, you try and do a good deed and it’s just not the right good deed. I had nothing but good intentions and it came from the best place, and I just wanted to send light and love to the world.”

There’s a crucial difference between niceness and kindness, and an overemphasis on the former, I believe, only protects those in power. To explain what I mean, let’s first take a look at what it means to be “nice.”

What is nice?

‘Nice’ is inherently performative

People aren’t “nice”—they act nicely. When someone describes a person as nice, they are speaking about their experience of that individual, not of the individual themselves. Ellen DeGeneres is the queen of nice. She built an empire on her identity as a professional nice person. Her trademark sign-off is “Be kind!” What’s not to love? A lot, apparently. With reports claiming that DeGeneres allowed for — and even participated in — a toxic work culture, it seems that her “niceness” was just an act.

‘Nice’ doesn’t threaten the status quo

Look at DeGeneres: She presented herself as the most palatable, socially acceptable version of a gay woman (straight size, white, able, just femme enough). Nice keeps the powerful happy by learning the rules and following them just so. People in power don’t like to be challenged — instead, they like things soft, warm, compliant. They like to say you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. What they’re really saying, however, is that if you don’t meet certain criteria or act in a specific way, then you don’t deserve to have your needs met.

‘Nice’ tries to tone-police

The powerful keep the blame on the disenfranchised. They tell them there’s a proper way to ask for change and that it’s impolite to point fingers or damage property. But this is like saying a person on fire should have to ask sweetly for some water. It’s like telling them they shouldn’t scream because their screaming might somehow embarrass the arsonist.

What’s the price of niceness? What might change if we stopped focusing on playing nice and starting focusing on being kind?

I believe everything would change. Whereas niceness is oriented around maintaining our current oppressive systems, kindness is revolutionary.

Let’s focus instead on kindness

To do a kindness is to invest in the betterment of an individual or community, even if that means challenging them and making them uncomfortable. Growth is uncomfortable.

Correcting someone when they’re wrong — that’s a kindness. Offering someone the opportunity to identify when or where they’re causing harm so that they might stop — that’s a kind thing to do. Not just for that person, but for everyone they interact with.

Let’s say I meet a nonbinary person, forget to ask their pronouns, and accidentally call that person “she.” I’m not intentionally trying to hurt this person, but I am being casually cruel. It would be a kindness for someone who noticed what happened to inform me that the person’s correct pronouns are they/them. And here’s what’s important: It would be a kindness regardless of how I receive it. Even if I feel they could have said it more empathetically or pulled me aside to chat in private. That doesn’t matter. The person who corrected me just gave me a gift. Anyone in that room who maintained silence in order to keep me, the cis woman, comfortable while the nonbinary individual suffered in silence would have been acting in support of our society’s existing inequitable power structure.

You can be kind without being nice. Kindness doesn’t require that you modulate your voice or adjust your tone. In fact, kindness often comes off as distinctly un-nice. Unlearning the rules of our flawed society cannot be done in isolation. We need to unlearn these rules the same way we learned them: in a community. One that prioritizes kindness over comfort. Over nice.

I’m not saying you should walk around being a jerk in the pursuit of a better world. I don’t subscribe to that “I’m not being mean, I’m just being honest” mindset. I think it’s important to be gentle with people who show a willingness to learn.

However, I realize my ability to do so is indicative of my privilege. I can speak softly and slowly because I’m not on fire.

When someone doesn’t show a willingness to learn and lives are at stake, then gentleness be damned. Niceness be damned. I’m here to be kind. To do the work.

Kindness is actionable. There are righteous ways to rage. | Freelance Editor | Essayist | Culture Analyst | Pronouns: she/they

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