Don’t Settle for Nice

“Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle.” ~Charles Glassman

Dscn1300When I talk to groups about kindness, I am always asked if there is a difference between being kind and being nice. For some, the difference may be merely semantic, but I think there’s more to it. While the outward behavior may appear the same, if we dig down, we see that there are significant differences in attitude, intention, and even energy between nice and kind.

Nice is doing the polite thing, doing what’s expected of me. I can be nice without expending too much effort, without making a connection. I can even be nice and still merely tolerate someone with my teeth gritted in a false smile, while making judgments about them and inwardly seething with impatience.

Kindness asks more of me. It asks me to withhold judgment, to genuinely care about the other person and whether they’re getting what they need from our interaction. Kindness forges connections. It also makes me vulnerable, because I don’t know how my kind action will be received—it may be rejected or misunderstood. With kindness, I risk jumping into unknown waters; with niceness, I stay safely on shore.

Where nice is a pretty passive quality, I’ve come to think of kindness as a verb—an action word. There is a generosity of spirit in kindness that may be absent when we settle for nice. For me, the phrase “extend yourself” sums it up pretty well.

Extend Yourself, side 1I first encountered that phrase more than 35 years ago when I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Dale Turner, a Seattle-area theologian, speaker, author, and extraordinarily kind man. Dale would often reach into his pocket and hand people little green cards with two simple words printed on them: “Extend Yourself.” I’ve carried that card in my wallet and had those two words clipped beside my desk for more than three decades. The words capture the essence of kindness, and they highlight the difference between nice and kind. Keeping Dale’s lovely tradition alive, I now hand out similar cards when I talk with groups.

Not sure if you settle for nice? Try an experiment: pay attention to your behavior and your thoughts next time you’re in the checkout line at a supermarket or coffee bar. Don’t try to do anything different, just pay attention. Are you on auto-pilot or are you making an effort to connect with the cashier or barista? Are you smiling politely, but generally uninterested in the person in front of you? Are you maybe feeling a bit impatient and wishing they would move faster?

After you’ve observed your usual behavior and attitude, next time think about how you might extend yourself: perhaps with a smile, a warm greeting, asking how their day is going, a bit of small talk, and then an expression of gratitude as you complete your transaction. My guess is that you’ll make at least two people happier—you and the service worker you’ve interacted with. Research shows that you’ll likely also give a warm glow to the people around you in line, who will then be more likely to extend themselves.

Unless we’re saintly or exceptionally evolved (and I’m neither), there will be times when we fall short—we speak curtly, blow off an opportunity to extend kindness, or are simply oblivious. That doesn’t mean we aren’t kind. It means we’re human. We’re doing our best in a world that doesn’t always make it easy. But we keep trying—and it does make a difference.

For years, I settled for nice. In the time I have remaining, I want to be kind. 

“Nice is saying all the right things. Kind is saying all the right things and meaning them.” ~Donna Cameron


19 thoughts on “Don’t Settle for Nice

  1. You’ve given me food for thought. I like this section a lot: “Where nice is a pretty passive quality, I’ve come to think of kindness as a verb—an action word. There is a generosity of spirit in kindness that may be absent when we settle for nice.”

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  2. YAAAASSSS!!! Thank you for the reminder, not just about the power of kindness, but also that of self-observeration, self-awareness, self-compassion, self-regulation, and self-improvement! 😀 We’re all here trying our best, messing up and trying again!

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  3. That is such a great distinction! It’s easy to be nice (just smile and don’t say anything mean 🙂 ), but being kind requires empathy and genuine interest in the other person… if only for a moment, like standing in a check-out line. Kindness is much more fulfilling – for both participants.

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  4. Interesting distinction between being nice and being kind. I’ll pay attention to my thoughts the next time I’m in line at Kroger, but I imagine I lean more toward nice, than kind.

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    • Ally, I think there may be times in such situations when the kind thing is to merely be “nice.” Such as when there’s a long, impatient line, and more than minimal small-talk puts everyone’s teeth on edge. Then, just a smile, eye contact, and thanks are a kindness to all. It’s the Kroger Conundrum.

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  5. What a great post, Donna, and it’s made me think about how different I feel when I’m being nice v. being kind. There is the depth of connection with kindness, which in turn makes the contact more meaningful for all concerned. I’ll be keeping ‘extend yourself’ in mind now too ☺️

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    • Thanks, JML, for your comment. I know some people don’t see a difference, but, like you, nice and kind feel very different to me. And the “after-feeling” is different, too. Nice feels “meh,” kind feels like I’m doing what I’m here to do.


  6. My mentor has always said that “I can never love everyone unconditionally, but I can be unconditionally kind”. Several years ago I got tired of being a “nice guy” and I work on being a kind person now. You’re absolutely right – kindness is a verb. I can be nice o you while harboring resentment and ill-will. I’ve also found out that niceness is just another word for manipulation – kindness is very intentional. I don’t practice it as often as I’d like but it sure beats being nice…

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    • I love the quote from your mentor, Gregory. What a wise person. “Unconditionally kind” is something we can all aspire to. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I can see how “nice” can be a form of manipulation—we behave that way not out of genuine caring, but to get something or to be perceived as something we may not be. Thanks so much for your comment—you’ve given me a lot to think about this morning!

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  7. Yes, all so very true. There’s a very distinct difference between the two. I like your check out exercise. It’s one I actually practice a lot, putting myself in their shoes and interacting with the person at the check out counter. Thanks for another helpful, inspiring post.


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