Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be nice. There have been times in my life when I have seen myself as a nice person. However, when I’m asked to describe myself, “nice” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. It’s usually “funny”, “wacky”, or “organized.” (I save “organized” for job interviews.)
Right before New Year’s Eve, I was hanging out with my friends J. and A. and we discussed the concept of niceness. They both said that they see me as nice. I told them they were crazy. “Well, you’re nice with an edge,” J. explained. “You’re not going to put up with any crap.” I was still puzzled, though. And when I am puzzled, I generally turn to T-Wizzle, my girl in Chicago, for her insight. Here’s an excerpt of our instant message conversation:
Moxie: J. and A. have said that they see me as a nice person – I figure they don’t know me well enough yet.
T-wizzle: I have experienced you as nice.
M: Was I drunk?
T: You put money on my Starbucks card.
M: Oh, right…
T: And you remembered my birthday.
M: Are those things that nice people do?
T: Yes. As for me, I’m not going to be nice anymore…it doesn’t help anything.
M: Now that is a load of crap. You are making great money, you have a great boyfriend. You didn’t get that by being an asshole.
In writing this post, I looked up the word “nice” on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. I had a feeling the word’s roots had no relationship with the meaning we now ascribe to it. Sure enough, I was right. (Emphasis in red added.)
Main Entry: nice
Inflected Form(s): nic·er; nic·est
Etymology: Middle English, foolish, wanton, from Anglo-French, silly, simple, from Latin nescius ignorant, from nescire not to know — more at NESCIENCE
1 obsolete a: WANTON, DISSOLUTE b: COY, RETICENT
2 a: showing fastidious or finicky tastes: PARTICULAR (too nice a palate to enjoy junk food) b: exacting in requirements or standards: PUNCTILIOUS (a nice code of honor)
3: possessing, marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision and delicacy (nice measurements)
4 obsolete: TRIVIAL
5 a: PLEASING, AGREEABLE (a nice time) (a nice person) b: well-executed (nice shot) c: APPROPRIATE, FITTING (not a nice word for a formal occasion)
6 a: socially acceptable: WELL-BRED (from a nice family) b: VIRTUOUS, RESPECTABLE (was taught that nice girls don’t do that)
7: POLITE, KIND (that’s nice of you to say)
When I read this definition, I started thinking about the concept of the collective unconscious. As defined by famed psychiatrist Carl Jung, the collective unconscious is a part of a person’s unconscious that is common to all humans. According to the Wikipedia entry:
[The collective unconscious] contains archetypes, which are forms or symbols that are manifested by all people in all cultures. They are said to exist prior to experience, and are in this sense instinctual…Less mystical proponents of the Jungian model hold that the collective unconscious can be adequately explained
as arising in each individual from shared instinct, common experience, and
shared culture. The natural process of generalization in the human mind combines
these common traits and experiences into a mostly identical substratum of the
Could it be that there’s a collective unconscious memory of the root word for “nice”? That on a deep level, we think that “nice” means silly, foolish, and ignorant? Or that it means a lack of restraint (dissolute), merciless, or even lewd (wanton)?
I’ve read many men-for-women personal ads on Craigslist where men complain about being rejected for being too nice. These guys’ comments seem to suggest that being nice makes you look like an idiot. And the women I’ve known that say “nice girls don’t get promoted at work” could be equating “nice” with being simple or silly. These examples, plus countless others, lead me to believe that society has a deep-seated belief that a nice person is a damn fool.
I think the answer lies in the last definition for “nice” in Merriam-Webster: polite, kind. To me, being kind means you treat others with compassion and consideration. You say and do things that are helpful. Nowhere in the definition of “kind” does it say you have to be self-sacrificing. Nor does it say you have to be a martyr, pushover, or pansy. Trust me, I checked.
Best of all, there’s nothing in the definition for “kind” about being silly, simple, or foolish. So I’m going to forget about ever trying to be nice. But being kind, well, that’s something I think I can do.