If you'd asked me a week ago if there was a big difference between "nice" and "kind," I would have shrugged and said not really, no. Then I came across this Lifehacker post highlighting a tweet from designer Jordan Green:
When I describe East Coast vs West Coast culture to my friends I often say "The East Coast is kind but not nice, the West Coast is nice but not kind," and East Coasters immediately get it. West Coasters get mad.-- Jordan Green (@jordonaut) January 21, 2021
Now, I can't stop thinking about the distinction. And apparently it's not just me and a few other folks who maybe spend too much time online. Philosophers and psychologists have dug into the difference between nice and kind too, revealing a distinction that every leader should keep in mind, especially in times of crisis.
A philosopher unravels the distinction
Philosophy PhD student Kelly Shi tried to untangle the distinction using real-life examples for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. For example, is holding the door for someone nice or kind? Well, that depends on why you do it.
"If the underlying motivation is to create a favorable impression for the purpose of asking for a favor later, then the action can be considered nice due to its pleasing effect, but not kind without a sense of benevolence. Conversely, if the motivation is to spare the other person from extra effort or inconvenience, then the action can be considered kind, as well as nice if it pleases the other person," she writes.
Or, to put that more succinctly, if you're holding the door to suck up, that's not kind though the other person might think you're nice. If you're holding the door just to be helpful, you're both kind and nice. Kindness, therefore, is about concrete actions to help others. Niceness is about being pleasing to others.
Which should you aim for? While it's certainly not a bad thing to be polite and avoid unnecessarily ruffling feathers, being nice doesn't go very deep. It's a smile and hello without any action (or maybe true feeling) to back it up. Kindness actually helps, even though it may do so gruffly. Or as Green puts it in a later tweet:
Niceness is saying "I'm so sorry you're cold," while kindness may be "Ugh, you've said that five times, here's a sweater!" Kindness is addressing the need, regardless of tone.-- Jordan Green (@jordonaut) January 21, 2021
Kindness and niceness are in conflict sometimes. Telling a flailing employee they're flailing with the aim of helping them improve isn't very nice. But it is kind. Calling out bias in a meeting isn't nice, it's awkward. It is also kind. Being chipper can even be actively unkind if your positivity is directed toward someone who is suffering and obliges the other party to hide their true feelings in the name of niceness (this is called toxic positivity).
Which may be why positive psychology site Project Happiness comes down definitively in favor of kindness over niceness. "While niceness maintains a facade that our lives are together and assumes that same status quo for others, kindness gives permission for real success and failure. Kindness defaults to an understanding that life can be hard, but that emotional support helps," the site argues.
Kind beats nice in the time of Covid
Choosing kindness over niceness may be even more important in our current moment when so many are suffering thanks to Covid-19. First, because aiming for niceness pressures others to project positivity they may not feel. Far better to choose your words carefully so people can be open about how they're really doing if they so desire. We're all grouchy at the moment. Straining for nice all the time is too much to ask.
Second, so many folks could use spiritual and material help right now. The world needs all the kindness it can get so we can make it through this crisis together. And finally, kindness helps the giver as much as the receiver, an absolute mountain of research shows. Helping others boosts happiness and resilience when we need joy and strength the most.
No need to go wild and give yourself permission for endlessly grumpiness. Niceness has its place. But, as we push through this last phase of the pandemic, remember that kindness runs deeper and is way more valuable. If you need to choose between niceness and kindness, always aim for kindness.