In the past week, I’ve had occasion to use the expression, “Be kind, not nice,” with three different clients. It’s one of my favorites.

What’s the difference between “kind” and “nice,” and why does it matter?

kindness photo

Nice often means niceties. It’s generally shallow gestures of social acceptability and respectability–what makes us look best in the eyes of others. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (it beats the hell out of meanness) unless it conflicts with kindness.

Here’s what I mean:

You tell someone what they want to hear rather than the truth, even when they know in their hearts that it’s not true and they don’t really believe you, and the world will soon tell them otherwise. But it helps you exit a conversation with minimal discomfort. You’re not the bearer of bad news. By being “nice,” you’re ostensibly protecting their feelings but also leaving them ill-prepared to handle what’s likely coming down the pike. You’re passing the buck.

You hear someone mistreating another person, or making bigoted statements, and you decide that nice people don’t butt into other people’s conversations. Karma will get them, or someone else will speak up. We remain silent, and polite.

Kindness, on the other hand, takes bravery. It involves consultation with your conscience. It’s Big Picture.

We think ahead to what happens if we say nothing, or if we tell our little white lies. We choose to stand up for those who can’t. We have hard conversations because we’re the best people for the job, because we can do it as lovingly and compassionately as possible, and we can help them deal with their pain afterwards.

Because the reality is, we can’t always shield people from pain. What we can do is fight back against the people who cause it. And we can express faith in the resilience of those who’ve been affected, and make it clear that we’re going to stay by their side through whatever comes. They can count on us no matter what.

But being nice? We’re just there for the moment. We’re aiming for the quick fix. And often, we’re benefiting ourselves more than anyone else. We’re trying to look like good people, as opposed to actually being good.

So the next time you’re tempted to be nice, think about whether it’s also kind; then act accordingly.