Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Difference Between Niceness and Kindness (and Why Being Nice Still Matters)...


A few years ago, I heard someone differentiate between being kind and being nice in a way that changed how I thought about those words. I realized that I’d been using the words interchangeably but they actually have a pretty different meaning in the real world. The way I heard it explained is that one’s kindness is driven by an internal compass and it is rooted in compassion without much concern about either admiration or condemnation. In other words, one’s kindness is inwardly rooted. Niceness, in stark contrast, is externally driven and approval seeking; a prevailing idea is that a “nice” person is more concerned with conforming to accepted social norms than coming from a place of genuine kindness. There is a lot of baggage with the word and associations with it can range from an implication that a “nice” person is someone who is shallow and dull but it also can take on darker undertones, like that “nice” people are phonies, pleasant to your face and back-stabbing when you’re not in earshot. Kind people can also be nice people - though not necessarily - and nice people are often not truly kind.

I’m about to say something controversial, though, and it’s a reversal of what I thought I was going to be writing about. In giving the subject some thought, I now believe that being nice - sweet, inoffensive and possibly fake nice - still matters.

I started writing this with the idea that I would be exploring the differences between kindness and niceness, build a decent argument against being nice, and call it a day. The more that I thought about it, though, the more I realized that when I left behind the cultural baggage of niceness, it is still a value of mine and it is very important to our movement if we are at all concerned with people being receptive to hearing and maybe even internalizing our message. In writing this and then thinking of some recent interactions with two longtime vegans who are kind in the sense that they have engineered their lives so as to minimize cruelties inflicted on other animals, I’ve learned that it is quite possible to be kind without being a nice person at all. In fact, I would go so far as to think of them as overtly mean people despite their practice of not using other animals. The way they treated me and how I thought about them as a result of this treatment has led me to conclude that being nice matters more than we realize. Being nice matters not just for personal reasons - who wants to be around people who are mean? - but also for building a dynamic and robust social justice movement that has a chance of rippling out to help the animals.

Because I can already hear the Fiery Voices of Righteous, Fist-Pumping Vegan Fury misinterpreting what I’ve written (I managed to piss off a whole passel o’ them on Facebook at least once before), this is a good point for me to say that by nice*, I don’t mean telling people what they want to hear. I don’t mean suppressing or altering your message to make others more comfortable. I don’t mean that we become so eager to please that we never ruffle feathers. I’m not saying any of that. Again, there is a lot of baggage around the concept of “niceness,” deservedly so, and I think especially for females and those of us working for social change, it is a word that is especially fraught with ugly implications of a power imbalance, of us knowing to stay in our place, of groveling for whatever crumbs of charity that might get tossed our way. Should we throw the concept of being nice out with the personal and cultural bathwater, though, just because we have negative associations with it? What if being nice is one of the most easily accessed ways of successfully communicating to others so they might actually consider creating change?  

Here is my thinking: the opposite of a kind person is a cruel person and the opposite of a nice person is a mean person. How many people are inspired by a mean person? We can get in our little social media-created bubbles of thinking that we’re effective when we get a lot of “likes” from our fellow vegans for our vilifying messages but outside of that bubble, how do these words inspire those who we really need to reach, those who are currently consuming animals? Mean people may have a lucid, smart and important message to communicate but how many people are able to hear it if it is wrapped in an insulting, hostile delivery? Do you know many people who want to talk to, learn more from, and basically be in the presence of meanness? I don’t. Imagine it yourself: if you had to choose between two people who both had something they wanted you to hear about but one screams in your face like a drill sergeant or pompously speaks down to you while the other employs basic practices of niceness (like listening, being considerate, being friendly, etc.), who would you be more inclined to want to spend your time with and listen to? Preferring to be around those who are nice to us is simply part of our animal nature. We seek it out like a cat seeks a sunny spot on the rug.

If we are genuine about wanting to create change for the animals, we have got to practice some of the basic strategies that have a reasonable chance of drawing people to us and our message. One strategy - among many - is to be a nice person. When what we have to say is already so tempting for people to disregard out of hand, shouldn’t we be trying our damnedest to get our foot in the door? Is it more important to score points or is it more important to plant the seeds for change? One may be more fulfilling in the moment but I hardly think that matters to the animals who will continue to be used as objects when we opt to sacrifice effectiveness for the instant gratification of meanness.

So that’s it. Kindness is still more important but being nice matters. And you can go to hell if you disagree. (Kidding!)

* By nice, I mean someone who is considerate. Someone who cares about tact but not at the expense of honesty. Someone who is able to listen and hear. Notice that I didn’t say they roll over? Notice that I didn’t say they tell others what they want to hear? Notice that I didn’t say that people should turn into manically grinning woodland creatures who spring out of bed every day, fueled by an unbridled passion for humanity? That is not nice to me, that is phony, and there is a difference.


  1. NICE, Marla!

    I see kindness as the underlying intent of a person who is in touch with their heart, and niceness as the natural way kindness is expressed. If I'm really feeling that kindness that comes from the heart, I'm quite naturally nice to people (and other animals). It doesn't really work the other way around when the fake smile and trained politeness are deployed as a stand-in for heartfelt kindness. As you pointed out, both are important, and it's important that they both be genuine. I hope this essay is widely read!

  2. In my vegan outreach, my perception is that people are far more likely to be receptive if you're nice. And like you say, this in no way implies that you have to change the message; in fact, since the other person is more likely to stay engaged and be less defensive, it's an opportunity to get more points across. It's also less stressful.

  3. Something that bugs me a little bit about this nice vegans and harsh vegans debate is that many of the softer, quieter vegans seem to approach the harsh, in-your-face vegans and ask them to be nicer or to change their style--not their message, but their style. I'm not saying this essay is asking some of the harsh vegans to be nice necessarily; I am, however, saying that the softer, quieter vegans should not approach the harsh and fiery vegans with suggestions to increase niceness and expect a nice response. If you want nice, I wouldn't get involved with the very clearly harsh and fiery vegans. That's not what they are here on earth to provide. We have Malcolm X vegans and we have MLK Jr vegans. We all are important to the overall transition to a vegan world, and only hurt feelings result when the MLK Jrs ask why the Malcolm X's aren't nicer. They'll stop being so insane when the insanity stops. I think that was MLK Jr's response when asked about Malcolm X's tactics.

  4. Thank you, Alan! Great thoughts there.

  5. I couldn't agree more, Gary. There is so much outside of our control. Why not control the factors that we can so we can be honest with our messaging instead of wondering why no one wants to talk to us?

  6. Thank you, Anonymous. I think you are right in that we should let one another communicate the way that works best for us but this is not so much about how radical or mainstream our messaging is but about how we convey it. Not everyone is Susie or Stewy Sunshine and shouldn't feel forced into an unnatural communication style. Still, I do think it's important to do our best to be heard. If we are snarly/rude/mean, I don't see that making great inroads for the animals. Your philosophy can be what it is but, as Gary said, if we can get people to be less defensive with us with simple behavior adaptations, it is worth looking into. This is less about Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King to me than simply communicating in ways that people are willing to hear.

  7. I love your blog and respect your work, but I find the tone policing going on inside the vegan community to be really tiring. I know you don't really mean it that way.

    We're fighting against this megalith of injustice that can feel completely overwhelming, and yet we're also always being told we shouldn't act angry about it. And yet, just saying eating meat it wrong is enough to alienate and offend most everybody. It does not matter how it is said.

    So vegans accommodate the dominant paradigm by saying things like, "eating meat is a personal choice," or "you can still be a good person and eat meat."

    Which is not dissimilar to making apologies for a person's racist comment, "but really, he's a nice guy."

    My Grandfather was one of the people I loved most in the world. He was also a racist, sexist, deer hunter. Those things do not cancel each other out. I can tolerate that degree of ambiguity, but many people cannot.

    I think I am sensitive to this topic, because my sister became an ex-vegan, and went online and researched all the arguments against veganism and tried to bait me with all this pseudoscience Weston Price wackadoo nonsense. Plants feel pain! (she has a biology degree). Grazing beef kills fewer animals than farming grain! (bad math). And I know she knows the other credible studies and compelling philosophical arguments. I am the one who gave her the books.

    And I lost it. I tried not to, but I did. It was the first fight we had since I was eight. I did not listen well. I was not polite. And I don't regret it. This onus on activists to always be exemplars of non-judgemental perfection is unrealistic and unfair. We get upset and that is OK.

  8. Melody, thank you so much for your thoughtful and heartfelt response. I actually wholeheartedly agree with you on pretty much all that you wrote and I am hoping that you understand that I am not trying to say that we should all be one way or have one approach. I have written before on the upside of anger and I really believe that all of our emotions -- even the less than pleasant ones -- can help us to reach people in unexpected ways. I also believe, though, that in general, we will get more people to consider what we are saying if we are kind. This doesn't mean that we roll over or dumb down our message. It's just that some really basic interpersonal can help us in getting the message out a great deal.

    I am so sorry to hear about your sister and I do not blame you for your hurt and frustration over her excuses. That is painful, especially from a family member, and you don't need to apologize for your feelings around that! Especially with family, I think, we can get to our core honest thoughts because, heaven knows, family knows how to trigger those responses. Anyway, I hope this makes sense. Thanks for all you do and embrace all of yourself! You are making a difference.

  9. Great article. Something I found is that kindness, like honesty, is a much easier way to live. Similar to Mark Twain saying, "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything," ...if we are kind, we needn't worry about being nice, it naturally follows, as do all things, from being kind and compassionate. Being nice, otoh, like lying, is a never-ending uphill battle, constant conflict between the inner and outer, constantly trying to reconcile who we are with who we pretend to be, a continual compromise of our values for the adherence of societal norms. One thing is for sure, I will never tamp down the kindness of telling the truth about the brutalization of our fellow Earthlings just to nicely spare the feelings of someone who perpetrates that brutalization without remorse. <3

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