Kind vs. nice.

There are two kinds of people in this world, and no, I don’t mean “kind” and “nice.”

I mean “people who use the words ‘kind’ and ‘nice’ interchangeably” and “people who care passionately about the difference.”

Kind vs. nice.

Those who draw the distinction all seem to agree: “kindness” is better. To be “kind” is to share deep and genuine connections, to help others, to sacrifice oneself. To be “nice” is to be superficial, artificial, cheap, and calculating.

I want to speak in partial defense of niceness. To me, “nice” and “kind” are two distinct virtues, each with its own purposes—and its own limitations.

Niceness tries to avoid bad feelings; kindness tries to heal them.

Niceness is about a pleasant interaction; kindness is about an enduring connection.

Niceness builds networks of loose pals and friendly acquaintances; kindness builds close bonds of friendship and support.

The intimacy of kindness is beautiful, but not always attainable—or even desirable.

For example, a city is safer and more pleasant when the drivers are nice. A nice driver brakes for yellow lights, lets other cars merge, and gives bicyclists a wide berth.

What would it even mean for a driver to be kind? There is no opportunity or need for a deep bond with a fellow driver. We’re just sharing public spaces in isolated encounters. Niceness is the virtue we need.

Or, for a digital example, I find that the internet has surprising reservoirs of kindness. Many people find deep community and forge real bonds. What the internet tends to lack is niceness. Where communities collide, we often treat each other shabbily (or worse than shabbily).

To go on Twitter and urge greater kindness would be a fool’s errand, a kiss blown into a hurricane. To go on Twitter and urge greater niceness — well, that’s also a fool’s errand, but at least it correctly identifies the virtue that’s missing.

Kindness, because of its depth, asks a lot of us. It’s demanding; you must improvise to meet a person’s particular needs in the moment. Niceness is easier; you can follow a generic script (“What about this weather, huh?”).

Being a matter of surfaces, niceness is possible even when you’re hurting. It doesn’t much sting to have it rejected; you can just turn the other cheek and keep smiling. But kindness requires more of your inner self; it’s vulnerable. To have kindness rejected can be quite painful.

Of course, the misuses of niceness are familiar. To offer niceness when someone needs kindness is cold, and can even verge into the cruel. (I know I’ve been guilty of this: every few months, with a little spike of shame, I think back on an eerily chipper email I once sent to someone who had recently lost a parent.)

Certainly, kindness is the deeper virtue. A world without niceness would be a bit of a grind; a world without kindness would be unendurably lonely. If the internet were full of writers blithely conflating the two, or insisting that niceness is the key to life, then I would of course speak up in defense of kindness.

But we find ourselves in the opposite world, where many are inclined to round niceness down to zero (or even treat it as a vice!). I thus offer the most banal conclusion any writer has ever uttered: being nice is Good, Actually.