What does nice mean?
Lately I’ve been focusing on being concise with language. If you follow me on twitter you’ll already know that I’ve been talking about being more direct and clear about what we mean when we communicate. Indeed I’ve outlined a twitter challenge/homework around this idea of stepping away from carte blanche value judgements.
Too often humans have this habit of couching things in terms that are widely accepted but poorly defined.
So what does “nice” mean?
Etymologically “nice” has a pretty nasty background, actually. Nice was a sarcastic term, used to describe something fake and that was a facade of kindness. It meant that a person was, willfully or accidentally, ignorant and thoughtless.
In current times “nice” has moved on to mean “goodness,” “pleasant,” “acceptable,” etc. but, especially in regards to feminism, still has undertones of negativity that I think most people simply ignore.
I won’t date nice people.
That isn’t to say that I will only date assholes, that I will only date people I don’t find pleasant or good. Quite the opposite.
What most people, and cisgender men in particular, seem to mean when they say “I’m a nice person” is that they’re kind, loyal, and they care about others. What they’re actually saying is a) that they believe these qualities are so rare in the world it’s worth noting that they have them and b) that this central idea of “niceness” is a core factor of their identity; it’s so important to them that they must communicate it to others for validation and identity negotiation.
With regards to a), I think it’s a slippery trap to think of kindness, loyalty, and caring as rare qualities. These are quite honestly default assumptions that I have about every human being and I expect people to actually WANT to be known for their kindness. Even if the shape and scope of those qualities is unrecognizable to me (and it honestly will be sometimes thanks to the intersections of privilege and under-privilege) I know that these are the basic qualities of pack mammals, which humans invariably are. Antisocial behavior (regardless of its roots) tends to be a symptom of something else in that person’s life and it’s worth more to treat it as data than as reason to punish or “other” that individual.
I think, also, that there’s a distinct lack of nuance around levels of system. When I say that kindness and caring are my “default assumptions” I mean on an interpersonal level. Obviously, with regards to systemic, organizational, and group levels people are actively self-serving and opportunistic. Being part of that collective allows them to withdraw from empathy and relieves them of the burden to be supportive, kind, and caring. Simultaneously, it also relieves them of the burden of cause; that is, because this is something propagated by the group/organization/system, that person (individual) has no duty or identity as one of the people enforcing this lack of support, kindness, and caring. This is how systems of oppression are perpetuated and why “privilege guilt” is rarely useful. It’s a discussion all on its own, but one that’s rarely had or acknowledged.
When I look at b) I am terrified. Thanks to psychology I know that when a person is faced with proof or challenge to their identity that it is very difficult to accept, internalize, and even understand or see as a worthy challenge. This is where “privilege blindness” comes from and where discomfort (in the form of “privilege crying uncle”) stems from in social justice and diversity work. When I point out something that is harmful that a person considers part of their core identity, or that relates to one of their core identities, that hurts and creates defensiveness (regardless of the validity of the point).
A person who builds an identity around “niceness” will be unable to see when they are being “not nice” often even when told directly “I know that you think you are nice but X behavior that you exhibit has Y effect and is, therefore, not nice.” “Nice people” tend to be intent-thinkers, whereby intent is always sacrosanct and the intention of not harming someone is tantamount to not actually harming them.
This is dangerous. Completely dangerous. It can range from benign (for example, if someone else does my laundry I’m bound to get upset; it’s not a kind thing to do and I’ve asked people to stop and they’ve continued to think it’s a kind thing and that I’ll be grateful for it) to the flat out irreparably harmful, and it always shirks responsibility for the impact of actions back onto the person who feels the impact, much like systems of oppression burden the oppressed with the responsibility of that oppression. To use the last example, the fact that I’m not grateful is something that’s “wrong” with me and now I’ve harmed our relationship because I’ve not considered their intent or feelings about doing my laundry.
It’s a silly example, but it’s silly on purpose: because it’s true. Starting with something so absurd makes it easier to move back and look at the issue from other lenses, other examples, other case studies. When we look at how systemic classism does the same thing by placing the burden of class on the individual instead of the system that perpetuates stratified classes, for instance, we see this play out at the systemic level. Add in issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. and these are the same mechanisms working on different levels of system.
Because I expect kindness and caring from humanity in general on an interpersonal level, I especially expect them from those that I date (loyalty is in itself an extremely loaded concept worthy of its own blog post so I won’t get into that here). These aren’t notable facets of a personality to me, but core defaults. When someone builds an identity around them (whether realistically or facetiously online) that tells me that they have little else that constitutes “who they are” and they’re subject to all of the pitfalls I’ve explained above.
People are so wildly different that kindness for each person looks remarkably different. Kindness is a pursuit of caring about people; only by caring about someone and discovering what they see/experience as kindness are you able to be kind to them. There is no default level of kindness or default actions. All too often people create this equivalence of kindness with manners or not being a horrible human being but they’re both different.
Kindness depends upon the acceptance that impact is more important than intent. Both are significant, but it is kinder to not do something that impacts someone negatively regardless of the intent behind that behavior.
In general, if someone needs to state and affirm that they’re a kind, caring person there’s a good chance that they are doing so more to prove it to themself than because they actually display those behaviors. Indeed stating that, in my experience, tells me nothing about their actual behavior.
Personally, since I see kindness and caring as actions and behavior, much like allyship, someone identifying these aspects of themselves is nothing more than a red flag because they don’t see them as default behaviors of being a decent human being. Doubly so when they use “nice.”
What does “nice” mean?