On kindness vs. niceness

From Peter Capaldi’s final monologue as the Twelfth Doctor: “Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind.”

I am a Whovian. Always have been, and I always will be. And the Doctor, in my eyes, perfectly embodies the difference between “niceness” and “kindness.”

In the Twelfth Doctor’s final speech, delivered with great emotion by one of the best actors to have played the role, he makes a distinction between being nice and being kind. The latter of which he places the emphasis on, and he’s right to do so. Nice is not the goal. Kindness is.

This distinction is something I’ve long wanted to talk about. It’s rare I go a day without seeing a plea for more kindness, especially online. Yet we all know of people, whether they be acquaintances or family members or blue-ticks on Twitter, who will say “#bekind” one moment and then spew some bigotry the next.

Even well-intentioned #bekinders can be problematic. If not through bigotry, then through their tone-policing, gas-lighting, victim blaming, etc.

Whilst I think it would be minimising the issue to narrow down a root cause to one thing, I do feel part of the problem is that too many of us have equated “niceness” with “kindness” to the point we use them interchangeably. We as a society do need to be kinder. But there are many calling for kindness who really want niceness. But the two could not be more different.

So what is the difference between “niceness” and “kindness?”

To answer this, I wish to refer to Emily Rose’s article “The Difference Between Kindness and Niceness“, whereby she outlines the contrast quite clearly:

Merriam-Webster defines “niceness” as, “the state or quality of having a pleasant or agreeable manner in socializing with others”, with related words such as amity, cordiality, complaisance, and benignity. A few quick clicks away brings us to “kindness”: a sympathetic, helpful, or gentle nature, characterized by forbearance, grace, and mercy.

So, really, the two are nearly opposites. One is completely external, and one completely internal. One is how we present ourselves, and one is how we really are. One will win you a sea of social media followers, and one will earn you lasting, meaningful relationships. One is almost manipulative, one is genuine. One a facade, one the truth.

I’d like to add that I think niceness is passive, whilst kindness is active and assertive.

It’s easy to be nice. Quite often it’s effortless. The trouble is that it’s quite easily feigned. I’m guilty of faking niceness by choosing cordiality over confrontation. There have been many situations where the kinder thing to do would be to call out a friend or relative who was in the wrong. But like many of us, I grew up to fear rocking the boat. I’ve received a lot more praise for keeping the peace than causing a fuss.

Whereas kindness is hard and more difficult to fake. You don’t demonstrate kindness through empty words of politeness. Telling someone they’ve done a good job when they clearly haven’t is certainly nice, but it’s far from kind. Honesty and a willingness to help someone is harder because it requires something of you. You might even have to deliver some uncomfortable truths that will make someone upset or angry. Nice lets you off the hook, but kind demands your time and energy. Kind is doing the right thing, even if it means you won’t be liked.

As such, we might argue that niceness is often motivated by fear. Thus, in contrast, kindness requires us to be fearless if we are to be unfailingly kind. And whilst I don’t want to spend too long relating the point back to my favourite fictional time traveller, this is very true of the Doctor’s character.

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was certainly known for his occasional callousness, especially in earlier seasons. His companion, Clara, had to write flashcards for him to read aloud for the situations he failed to show basic care to people who were dealing with their comrades dying around them. But no matter how brash, he took actions he thought were right to save and protect the innocent.

This is not to say we should all be blunt with one another. This is not an argument for doing away with that inner-filter that makes us think before we speak. (Well, some of us). There are many who use the argument of “I just tell it like it is” as justification for their unpleasant behaviour. But whilst some might argue speaking your mind is honest, it doesn’t automatically make it kind. Intentions behind your honesty matter.

But as Emily Rose summarises in her article (emphasis mine):

Kindness stands up for itself. Kindness is true to itself. Kindness will continue to be kind, even when it isn’t agreed with or deserved, or even wanted. Kindness can be held accountable for its actions, whether good or bad. Kindness takes on responsibility and commands respect. Everyone deserves kindness.

Niceness rolls over and shows its soft underbelly. Niceness puts on a show to manipulate others, whether for personal gain or basic survival. Niceness decides for itself when it should be bothered. Niceness makes up clever excuses for the times it never showed up by pointing out the few times it stopped by for a minute. Niceness dodges responsibility, both in the moment and when consequences catch up with it. No one respects niceness. No one deserves it, when the truth is always the right answer.

Kindness is not about doing away with all pleasantries. If you can be nice whilst still being kind, then there’s no reason to be anything else. If it’s honest, then it’s nice to be nice. Speaking for myself, I quite enjoy being nice. I fake it as little as often, and endeavour to never be fake nice with family and friends.

But the point is that there are times when being kind requires us to drop the niceness. Whether that’s holding someone accountable for their actions, solving a problem in the workplace, organising people to drive systemic change, communicating your needs to a friend or partner, erecting boundaries with a toxic person, giving feedback, or whatever.

Kindness is how we grow and help each other grow. We cannot make a better society without a commitment to kindness, and that’s going to mean facing some hard truths. So if we have to make a choice between being nice or being kind, then we must choose to be fearlessly kind.