Why I Choose Kindness Over Niceness

Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl last week and some brilliant minds branded our city with #BoldNorth. It was great. Our long list of frigid outdoor festivities was basically a dare to just try to be as bold as us. But you can betcha the folks in town for the big game experienced a lot more Minnesota Nice than Minnesota Bold. Which is probably good.

Nice is a trait guests enjoy. When your hosts can pat you on the back and say, “Have a nice day!” (even though your hosts were really, really, really, REALLY hoping their team would be in the big game), that’s the utmost in nice. Am I right?

Still, is nice always enough? Is nice where it ends? Can we muster up a little bit more for each other once in a while? Should we? These are things I’ve been thinking about lately. Niceness. Kindness. And the difference between them.

Nice and simple?

Growing up, I knew the word “nice” had something to do with being friendly but, honestly, it gained most of its meaning in the context of what a person should not be doing:

  • Don’t take his toys. Be nice.
  • Don’t push. Be nice.
  • Don’t argue. Be nice.
  • Don’t hurt her feelings. Be nice.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather speak to a nice cashier than an un-nice one. But I still remember how different it felt when the word “kind” started showing up in sentences where I expected “nice” to be.

Like: “What would be the kind thing to do right now?” Or: “Can you think of a way to be honest while also being kind?” Or: “Do you think you could be kind to that person who hurt you?”

The case for kindNESS

I don’t remember noticing this verbiage shift until I was an adult (in therapy). But once it clicked, one thing became immediately clear: Kindness requires more from me than niceness.

Kindness isn’t just about restraining myself from hurting someone. Kindness demands a greater level of compassion and care. And empathy. And intention. Kindness means treating someone well vs. just not treating them badly.

It’s nice to not kick someone who’s down. It’s kind to offer them a helping a hand.

It’s nice to be likable. It’s kind to be genuinely interested in another person’s wellbeing.

As it turns out, one of the first people I was encouraged to be kind to was the hardest one of all: myself. This was no accident, because another thing I’ve learned about kindness is that the less I offer to myself, the less I’m able to give to others. And the more I freely lavish kindness on my own imperfect self, the more kindness I have left over for the rest of the world.

Wit and Delight Niceness vs. Kindness Photo 2

The hard part

I soon learned another thing about kindness though. Not only does kindness require greater effort, but it sometimes doesn’t look very “nice” at all.

Let’s take that “Don’t hurt her feelings.” advice, for example. At one point in my life, that was my golden rule: Never make anyone feel uncomfortable or regretful or awkward or sad… Until I found myself drowning in a swamp of codependency that ended up hurting others as much as myself.

When disagreeing with someone didn’t seem like the “nice” thing to do, I would bottle things up until, inevitably, I’d blow up—spewing hurtful words and unfair judgments. When it didn’t seem “nice” to interrupt a loved one’s busy day with my need for connection, I wouldn’t voice that need—until I’d become a needy, resentful, passive-aggressive bully.

Worst of all, when it didn’t seem “nice” to drag my messy, complicated, sometimes-disagreeable self into the presence of someone who seemed more “together” than me, I’d work really hard to keep those parts of myself hidden. As a result, I robbed some special people of the chance to have a real connection with the real me—while also sending myself the message that the real me isn’t worth knowing. I may have come across as “nice” in the moment, but that wasn’t kind to anyone, by any definition.

it’s Kind of a challenge

I’m speaking of these things in the past tense but, of course, I’m a work in progress, as we all are. Being kind isn’t always easy. It’s not always our default setting. We have to overcome passivity or laziness. We have to contend with the voices in our heads that argue for nice, sterile relationships vs. kind-but-complex ones. The struggle is real, but it’s worth it. Because, in my experience, we all need kindness a whole lot more than niceness.

I know I do.

P.S. Ellen Koneck nailed that whole Minnesota Nice thing in this refreshing piece. If you haven’t enjoyed her delightful take on it, I highly recommend.

Image sources: W&D / 2 /

Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who has almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at  shortsandlongs.net.