On Being Nice


I have been described many times in my life as “nice.”

According to dictionary dot com:

I should like that people say I’m nice, right? Who wouldn’t want to be nice? And yet…it stings a little. Oh, I know it’s not a bad adjective. It’s just that– I don’t know– there are so many adjectives out there. There are so many better adjectives to be:¬†funny, smart, charismatic, professional, kind, talented, genuine. And yes, a few of those adjectives have been thrown my way from time to time (not funny– I’m not so much with the funny), but it’s “nice” that usually wins out.

There’s something a little vapid about nice. A little banal. Maybe it says more about what you’re not. We kind of throw that word “nice” around when we can’t think of anything better.

“That looks nice.”

“Be nice!”

“Have a nice time.”

“Nice job.”

I even remember Oprah once saying something like, “Nice? what is that?”

When I taught, I was often thought of by my students as the “nice” teacher. At first blush, maybe it’s a compliment. But I also know it implies other things. The nice teacher is the one who lets you get away with things from time to time. The nice teacher is the one who isn’t mean, isn’t strict, isn’t too hard on you. (And we all know the really good teachers are the tough ones!)

I’ve had friends who’ve said I’m nice. But the nice friend is the one you don’t worry too much about upsetting because you know she’ll be there for you anyway. The nice friend is the one you take for granted. You think fondly of the nice friend, but don’t rush to return her emails or calls.

I’ve had boyfriends who’ve said I’m nice. And we all know where that goes.

Yes, there’s something about the word “nice.” I think what bothers me most about the word is that it somehow implies a kind of absence of power. It’s a passive word. It requires little effort. Compare “nice” to, let’s say, “kind.” See? A nice person is perfectly agreeable and isn’t offensive. But it takes a little work to be a kind person. A kind person goes out of her way for you.

It’s the power that I miss. The power to do good. The power to effect change. The power to make a mark on the world.

So while it’s nice to be nice, and I do know people mean it as a compliment, I am so much more than that.

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