Where Did the Idea of Being "Nice" Come From?

Mar 13, 2024

Where Did "Nice" Come From? Exploring the Origins and Implications of Authentic Kindness

The words we choose to express ourselves hold immense power. Among these words, "nice" has cemented itself as a common descriptor for pleasant behavior. However, beneath its surface lies a profound distinction. Being "nice" and being genuinely “kind” are different. Choosing kindness over niceness, its counterfeit is crucial for fostering genuine relationships. 

You can see in the chart below that the usage of the word “nice” has been increasing in writing steadily since the 1980s. The issue is that it’s being used incorrectly. Most people use it as a synonym for “kind,” but that is not what it is. Understanding the nuances is critical to living our most authentic lives.The root of the Word "Nice":

  • According to https://www.etymonline.com/word/nice. The word "nice" traces its roots back to the 1,300s Latin word "nescius," meaning ignorant or unaware. In 12th century Old French it means “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish.” 
  • From the outset, this may seem astonishing but it actually makes a lot of sense. Over time, it evolved to connote qualities such as delicacy, refinement, and pleasing appearance. However, its original connotation of ignorance sheds light on how superficial niceness can be. It evolved into meaning “agreeable.” This is a very logical evolution—going from senseless to agreeable. Being senseless makes a person very agreeable because it’s easy to agree without any sense, thoughts, or opinion.

Where did we learn to be nice?

  • When I ask audiences where the concept of being nice comes from, many say they learned it either at home or in church. My research is limited, but from what I can see, this is true. It was certainly true for me. I was repeatedly instructed as a child to be nice. Unfortunately, because it is what I was taught, I passed this erroneous teaching on to my kids and other churchgoers until I learned better. 
  • Surprisingly, the term "nice" finds no direct mention in the bible or any scriptural teachings, while the concept of kindness is deeply rooted in various religious texts. The emphasis lies on genuine compassion and goodwill rather than surface-level politeness. The elevation of "nice" as a virtue stems more from societal norms than from spiritual teachings.

The "Nice" Movement:

  • When the iconic “Bambi” movie premiered in America, it very quickly became a beloved hit. And through it, the concept of “niceness” spread like fire. The character Thumper famously imparts the phrase, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This sentiment may appear innocuous, but it promotes the idea that niceness equates to virtue. 
  • Society began prioritizing pleasantries over authenticity, perpetuating the "nice" facade. In essence, this phrase means don’t say mean thoughts out loud. In effect, it means avoid confrontation: avoid any difficult conversations and silence the communication of opinions and values. 

"Nice" isn’t a virtue but rather a Defense Mechanism:

  • Contrary to popular belief, being "nice" often serves as a defense mechanism rather than a genuine display of kindness. Niceness is used to avoid conflict rather than resolve it. People resort to niceness to maintain appearances, manipulate, and hide. All of which leads to superficial interactions devoid of authenticity. 
  • In contrast, kindness comes from a place of genuine empathy and goodwill. Kindness fosters meaningful connections and nurtures healthy relationships, because it is honest. Nice will never rock the boat. It will never move the boat at all.  If you aren’t willing to rock the boat, you are not willing to row the boat either. If you aren’t willing to have hard conversations, you aren’t willing to build trust. Niceness paralyzes relationships because it keeps you both stuck in place. 
  • Kind is not mean

Replacing niceness with directness and honesty may sound harsh, but honesty is not the brutal beat-down we have painted it to be. We are completely capable of conveying the truth in respectful, loving ways. Honesty is not harsh. Kind is not mean. 

Kindness is communication without the placating, people pleasing, and destruction. Lean into turning “Big Hard Conversations” into “Big Kind Conversations.” The Nice vs. Kind Self-Paced Transformative Course expands into how to transform your niceness into kindness. Check it out and start your journey to more meaningful relationships.

Recognizing the distinction between being "nice" and being truly “kind” sets us on a path to being our most authentic selves. Niceness may offer temporary comfort, but it pales in comparison to the depth of sincere kindness. Replace superficial pleasantries with loving honesty and help create a world enriched by empathy, compassion, and human connection. Let us strive to move beyond the counterfeit allure of niceness and embrace the transformative power of authentic kindness. 


Learn more about what it means to be kind instead of nice, check out our Nice vs. Kind Self-paced Transformative course.

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