Aside from the most basic skills, one of the first things I think children are taught is “be nice.”
It starts out meaning the same thing whether you’re a girl or a boy. “Be nice” means, “don’t hit.” It means “don’t bite.” Or “don’t steal that toy.” “Please don’t scream.” In the beginning, it simply means treating other people decently, because of course children don’t come into the world knowing how to have empathy, so we teach them.
As kids get older, it starts to mean different things. “Be nice” for a boy continues to be about considering others and essentially not making their lives more difficult, while “be nice” for a girl slowly becomes “don’t make anyone feel bad for any reason.” It may seem like a minor distinction, but it really isn’t.
When I was young, I was raised by a mother who was raised to be even nicer than me, and so “being nice” was not only taught to me, it was modeled to me every day. It meant not complaining. It meant not disagreeing. It meant considering other people’s feelings and desires before considering my own. Be quiet, smile, do for, and don’t ever, ever say no.
The mother I had as a young child grew and changed, she learned to have a voice over time. The mother that my sisters were raised by wasn’t quite so timid as mine was, and it shows a little more in their approach to life, though the underlying current is still there. I remember being 4 years old or so, living with an emotionally abusive step-father who would rapid-fire tasks at me. Do this, and this, and this. And no matter what I chose to do first, I was wrong and I was in trouble. Looking back, I see it was just power-plays and mind games, but at the time I was simply confused and upset. I cried to my mother about it, and she just sighed and deflated a little and said “well, next time maybe just ask him what he’d like you to do first and then you won’t get in trouble.” She knew he was being unreasonable, but the need to not make waves was so ingrained in her that rather than talking to him and risking a blowup, she placed the responsibility on me – like she placed the responsibility on herself in those same types of situations.
Thinking like this means that whenever someone treats you poorly, it’s ultimately your fault. That you need to diffuse situations, change your response, do better – and then they’ll be good to you. That’s something that stuck with me for a long, long time.
I learned very early that I couldn’t be confrontational, no matter how much I disliked how I was treated. I learned that other people’s opinions mattered much more than my own, and that if someone disagreed with me then I must be the one in the wrong. I learned to placate at my own expense. When I was the victim of abuse, I never argued, never resisted, never said no. When I was bullied at school (by boys, almost always boys), any fight I had in me was quickly squashed and I had to learn to just take it. I was a mousy, small girl and I couldn’t defend myself even when I wanted to. My mother, teachers, school administrators again put the responsibility on me. “Just stay away from them,” was one I heard a lot. In the 80’s, the “kids will be kids” mindset was still in full swing. Nobody was going to rescue me and I couldn’t fight back.
I developed an intense need to make people happy. In my mind, a happy person wouldn’t hate me or hurt me. If I made people happy, maybe they’d accept me. Maybe at least they wouldn’t be cruel. I tried to make myself invisible as much as I could. I grew my bangs out and hid behind them. I pulled into myself and physically shrank as much as possible, dropped my face and always looked down. I stayed to the side in gym and at recess, and did my best not to be seen. I did everything I could to avoid being noticed, because when people paid attention to me it was often unpleasant.
If I had the misfortune to be noticed, I often did whatever I could to people-please. I was generous to a fault to begin with, but gave and gave even more because I felt sure that that would get me the acceptance I craved. Spoiler: it didn’t.
These days, rather than the extreme bullying I endured, it seems that some parents and teachers have swung too far to the other extreme. Acceptance and inclusion are king. You must “be nice” in a lot of circles. I think of the kids who aren’t allowed to invite only the few classmates they consider friends to their birthday parties, or the girls who are told they can’t refuse a dance request.
Somewhere along the way, “be nice” became more important than “be kind.” At very least, they came to be viewed as interchangeable in a way that I don’t believe they are, in the slightest. To my mind, “be nice” and “be kind” are two very different instructions.
Some of the kindest people that I know are not “nice.” They’re loud, they’re crude, their jokes are dark. They are no-nonsense, call-you-out-on-your-bullshit people. They don’t care a single whit if you like them or not. They are rough around the edges and they can be an acquired taste for some. They’re not nice. But they are so kind.
These are the people who will lend a hand when you need it. Who give back to the community. Who will absolutely listen if you’re having a dark, stressful time. Who will come help you with your housework when you’re sick or bring you a meal. They are the ones who will give without need for recognition, and without expecting anything back. And as I’ve gotten older, this is more and more who I am too.
“Nice” is a surface thing. It’s geared toward not making other people uncomfortable. It often means pretending, white-lying, and being uncomfortable yourself. It has its times and places. “Be professional” and “be nice” are far more interchangeable than “be nice” and “be kind” are. Nice is a face, sometimes a mask. Nice is putting yourself second. Nice is civility. And when you’re at work, or your children’s school events, or a funeral – it’s good to be nice.
Kindness is much deeper. It comes out of genuine care of people, what they need, not what they think of you. Kindness isn’t concerned with looking good or garnering attention or affection. Kindness is concerned more with the richer, larger picture than it is with shallow, plastic smiles or empty compliments.
I love inappropriate humour. I’m argumentative. I don’t much care anymore whether people like me. I own my awkwardness and call it my charm. Some days I don’t make myself presentable in the least, and I don’t need people to think I’m pretty. If you say something stupid, I’m gonna call you on that. If you carry on about something meaningless as if it’s the end of the world, I’m gonna poke fun at that. I live mostly for my own approval, and nobody else’s.
Because I live for my own approval, I am kind. That’s what I want to be, and it’s what I admire in any person. I am generous and giving, I am thoughtful to the people I care about, I give back to my community in any way I can. I no longer give at the expense of myself or my family, because I don’t need to be a martyr, but I do go out of my way for people. The good that I do doesn’t need to be seen by anyone besides the recipient.
“Nice” wants to be seen. “Kind” doesn’t need to be.
Being nice means smiling at the dude who catcalled you, because it’s “just a compliment” and you don’t want to make him angry. Being nice means not talking back when someone says something that makes you feel small. Being nice means being friendly to someone you don’t like, simply for the sake of appearances. Being nice means not arguing for something you are passionate about.
Being kind means trying to understand people and their situations, spending time, resources or money on helping those who can’t help themselves, or setting aside judgement. Spending the time to come up with something for them that you know they’ll just love. Sometimes it also means telling someone something they don’t want to hear when you know they need to hear it, not enabling them, setting boundaries or a host of other things that aren’t very nice, out of love.
I don’t prize niceness anymore. I believe that people need to be kind, they need to be respectful, they need to be considerate, find their priorities and be their best selves. Be authentic, be true to yourself, be giving, be caring.
Be someone you can be proud of.
Be nice to yourself first.