There are some significant differences between being nice and being kind.
People tend to think that niceness and kindness are interchangeable because they seem so similar on the surface. After all, aren’t kind people nice and nice people kind?
Well, sometimes. Sometimes not.
Sometimes a person is nice but not at all kind. And sometimes a person is kind but doesn’t come off as nice.
Why is that? Well, it’s because nice is a social mask people use to interact with the world.
Kindness, on the other hand, is an active choice to pour positivity into someone else who needs it. That someone may be people, but you could also look at it like animals, a cause, or supporting a charity. Kindness strives to selflessly improve the world.
We should also mention that ‘selflessly’ is a commonly misinterpreted word. To be selfless is to not be a martyr. Instead, it’s to act in a way that considers others before oneself. That can be something as simple as donating money to a charity, even if you’re a bit strapped for cash. It could be helping a senior citizen load their groceries into a car. A selfless act may be picking up a stray kitten that you spot on the side of the road.
Not coincidentally, all these things are acts of selfless kindness. They all put the needs of others before your personal needs.
But plenty of nice people wouldn’t go out of their way for others. They just act nice and polite because that’s what society expects of them. Some may even act nice in their community just for their reputation. Still, they’re actually terrible people when behind closed doors.
What are the key differences between niceness and kindness?
1. Niceness comes with personal repercussions.
Niceness is a social expectation where you can suffer direct repercussions for not being nice. The consequences of not being nice can range greatly depending on the kind of company you keep.
You may get fired if you’re not nice at work. Maybe you end up ostracized and uninvited to events if you’re not nice to your friends. And if your world is a bit rougher, it can even get you punched in the face if you overstep too many boundaries.
Kindness is different. A lack of kindness often doesn’t have any personal repercussions. Consider the previous examples. It won’t really affect you if you don’t donate to charity, pick up that kitten, or help that senior citizen load their groceries. Maybe you’ll feel bad about it later. Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’re a person who can’t see the difference at all.
Some people just have low empathy. They can look at those situations, not see anything special about them, and get on with their day without a second thought.
2. Kindness is often difficult.
Let’s say you’re walking down the street. You may smile at someone you pass or wave to others. In that scenario, you’re being nice. You’re acting in that social construct of niceness to interact civilly with other people.
Kindness digs much deeper than that. It requires vulnerability, emotionally understanding yourself, and facing down some pretty serious situations.
For example, let’s say you have a friend with depression. You love your friend and want to be there for them through the lows, but mental illness is hard. It’s hardest for the people who experience it. Still, you have to be emotionally resilient to be okay with watching someone you care about suffer, knowing that you can’t do anything about it.
You can be supportive, listen, and sit with them in their darkness, but you can’t fix it for them. You can’t make them go to a doctor, seek therapy, or do the necessary work to try to recover. In addition, it can be a long journey accepting one needs help to make progress. You just have to choose to be present and sit with them in that discomfort.
Not everyone can do that for a variety of reasons. It’s triggering to some people because they’ve suffered suicide losses or had problems with mentally ill loved ones. Sheltered people may find mental illness disturbing and not be emotionally resilient enough to be present. And some people just don’t want to because mental illness is ugly and painful.
Kindness can be easy at times. For example, helping a senior load their groceries doesn’t take a significant emotional load. It just takes you sacrificing about two minutes out of your day. It’s still kind, but you don’t have to be nice. It’d be easy to smile at that person when you’re walking past and forget all about it.
3. Niceness may stem from inadequacy.
Niceness may be rooted in self-esteem issues or inadequacy. A person may be nice because it’s the easiest way to avoid conflict. It’s not even that they are necessarily a nice person; it’s just that niceness is the easiest way to curry favor and stay out of harm’s way.
And while that may seem like a critical, unfair statement, it is worth noting that these folks often deserve sympathy. People don’t start out feeling inadequate. Self-esteem is often damaged by unkind people or difficult circumstances. The person who feels compelled to be nice for self-preservation and protection may be a domestic or child abuse survivor.
It’s the same deal with people-pleasing. The person continuously goes out of their way to be nice and do things for others because they feel it is required of them to maintain favor. But, again, these aren’t kind acts because the person feels compelled by their insecurities or needs validation.
Often, the people-pleaser will set themselves on fire to keep others warm. That’s a lack of kindness toward oneself. If you set yourself on fire for others, you’ll just burn up. That’s co-dependency, not kindness. Co-dependency deprives both parties of a genuine connection. It enables bad behavior and may even destroy the relationship as the giver continues to give without limits and the taker continues to take without limits.
On the other hand, kindness is a measured choice to put your energy into the world in a way that respects yourself. You can be selfless because you put more consideration on yourself than others, but it shouldn’t be burning yourself up. You can’t do anything if you burn out.
4. Kindness is about connection.
You would think that niceness would be the key to forging connections. It can be, sometimes. Niceness makes people more approachable than someone who is projecting an unhappy mood. However, niceness can also be superficial.
Have you ever worked in customer service? You are basically required to be nice and pleasant to everyone, from the gentle and respectful to rabid, self-centered a**holes. You can’t cuss them out, hang up on them, or walk away from them when they treat you badly. You have to be nice because niceness is good customer service. After all, management mostly cares about resolving that issue so the customer will return.
So, they may not care that their front-line workers are getting screamed at by someone that doesn’t want to wear a mask or didn’t look at an expiration date on their coupon. Not all management is like that, but quite a lot are. It’s not really their problem unless the problem escalates.
Kindness, on the other hand, requires vulnerability. Kindness shows the empathetic side of who you are, allowing you to connect with the world. That senior that you helped? The kitten that you picked up? Donations that you made? All of those things are improving the world with your own two hands. You are creating a connection by taking time out of your day to do something to serve others.
And in the case of charity, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s anonymous. Many people don’t want to put their kindness on public display. It’s still kindness, though.
5. Nice people are easy to take advantage of.
The social mask of niceness can allow a person to be taken advantage of. The nice person who wants to please others may not have good boundaries or the ability to say no. They may even be too gullible and fall for every sob story they’re pitched. How about a common example that many people fall for if they don’t know any better?
“I’ve just been having a really hard time. It’s so difficult! And all of my friends and family just abandoned me when I really needed them. I feel so alone right now.”
Okay, that could be true. It happens. Or, perhaps it would be worthwhile to ask, “Why?” Why did all of your friends and family abandon you when you really needed them? What role did you have in finding yourself all alone? Maybe they were all toxic jerks who didn’t care about the person. Or, maybe they love the person greatly. Still, they’re establishing healthy boundaries because that person keeps doing terrible things to them.
A nice person will feel bad for them and probably be manipulated by them. Healthy kindness, though? A kind person may help them because that kind person wants to give them assistance. But they don’t need to. They don’t necessarily need to believe the sob story. A kind person is not driven by pity or their need to save this poor, unfortunate soul because they are the only one that can!
The truth of the matter is that no one can save anyone from themselves. You can help another person, but you can’t save them.
6. Kind people aren’t always nice.
It’s worth reiterating that kind people aren’t always nice. Nice people tend to not want to rock the boat. They don’t want to cause any waves or discomfort. Do you know what that means? That means that nice people are often not trustworthy.
But wait, how can that be? The person’s nice, so clearly they must be trustworthy too, right?
No. If that nice person is driven by their need to please others, you can’t trust them to be honest with you when you need real honesty. Call it real honesty; call it brutal honesty, whatever you want. Sometimes we all need to hear feedback that isn’t nice, so we can take a long look at ourselves, determine if there is any truth to the statement, and decide if we need to make a change.
Kind people will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want.
But kind people aren’t always neat and polished. They aren’t always nice, smiling, or happy. Some have hard lives where they were taught the importance of kindness by getting around life. Others have been taken advantage of when they show their vulnerability.
Have you ever loaned money to someone you thought was a good friend, and they never paid you back? That’s on the minor end of those experiences. The major end of those experiences can be life-ruining or set the kind person back years. You let a friend having some problems move in, and whoops! They steal your personal information and commit identity theft. Now you have to deal with that crap for however long it takes to resolve. Months? Years?
You don’t have to be nice to be kind. And, in fact, many kind people aren’t nice because it protects them from the predation of people who aren’t so kind.
7. Learning kindness.
Allow me, the writer of this article, to break the fourth wall on this article as we close out. Before writing this, I examined many articles and a lot of information on niceness versus kindness. And in almost every one of those pieces of information, the author strongly asserted that kindness is an innate quality of a person. That an individual cannot learn kindness. They’re either kind, or they’re not.
This assertion is written by people who never had the struggle of trying to learn kindness and develop empathy. In my case, I lived with undiagnosed Bipolar-depression for over a decade. I had none of the fun or “popular” symptoms of Bipolar Disorder like euphoria or creativity while unstable.
Downswings were angry, hopeless, and empty. Upswings were hostile, paranoid, and aggressive. And shockingly, years of riding that rollercoaster basically shut off my ability to empathize with anyone. I wasn’t nice or kind because f*ck these people!
But, as I started to recover, I started to feel a small glimmer of wanting to ease the suffering of my fellow mentally ill people. It started as no more than a pinprick of light in the darkness. And so I started doing things like going out of my way to do simple things for others without expecting anything in return. I forced myself to question why I viewed everyone else with hostility. I read books on Buddhism, Stoicism, kindness, and service. I talked to people that I knew to be kind people. I talked to people who were kind to me when I was an a**hole. I went to therapy and worked on my emotional landscape with a professional. I then started doing volunteer work with other mentally ill and disadvantaged people.
I tell you this is not for kudos or a pat on the back. I tell you this because empathy and kindness are skills that you can learn and develop if you feel like you’re not a kind person. Truth be told, I don’t have many bright and shiny feelings while practicing kindness. It doesn’t feel warm and sunny and, “Oh, I’m so wonderful! And I feel so good about myself!”
Being kind is hard for some of us. It’s hard to watch people suffer like that and know that all you can do is try to point them to resources and hope they make better, healthier decisions. But if they don’t want to? They won’t. And you have to be okay with that.
You don’t have to feel all bright, shiny, and like you’re the savior of the unwashed masses to be a kind person. Kindness is a choice. It’s a skill you can learn. But, at its core, it’s pouring into other people’s cups without expecting anything in return. If you’re doing things for others with an expectation of what you can get out of it and how it benefits you, that’s business, not kindness.
If you’re going to do business, do business. If you’re going to practice kindness, then practice kindness. Don’t confuse the two. You are perfectly capable of developing this skill yourself if you dedicate the effort and time to it. Don’t let ignorant people tell you otherwise.
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- How To Stop Being A “Nice” Guy: 8 Tips That Actually Work!