A friend asked me to talk about the difference between kindness and niceness, as both concepts are used in an effort to point children in the direction of appropriate social skills. This topic had been sitting in my bank of ideas when the perfect moment arrived. Ellen Degeneres drew heat this past week when it came to light that she enjoys a close friendship with former President George W. Bush, a man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people both domestically and internationally and one who chipped away at the rights of swaths of U.S. citizens. Given her claim that she is kind to all, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to take a deeper look at kindness versus niceness. Kindness has many benefits and it’s certainly a noble trait to pursue. So, what’s the difference between kindness and niceness? Is Ellen’s situation truly an example of kindness?
Dictionaries don’t offer much of a distinction, but clearly we do differentiate in common parlance. Niceness is demonstrably synonymous with politeness, whereas kindness exists in a deeper, more committed space. I propose my own definitions for the sake of clarity.
Niceness is the quality of being polite in pursuit of respectability and maintaining the status quo. Niceness avoids conflicts and behaves in socially acceptable ways in order to reveal our best intentions. Niceness derives from humanity’s basic drive to be accepted within a social group. Clothes can be nice. Days can be nice. Dogs can be nice. People can be nice. Niceness is the overarching compliment paid to those who make us feel good. However, it can be misleading at best and fraudulent at worst. Niceness uses adherence to social standards as a means to improve a person’s social standing and, therefore, it cannot be relied upon to advance all people equally. Not when our culture suffers from disparities in equity across all aspects of identity.
Niceness brings us school flyers like this one where children are told they are responsible for the bullying that happens to them, that only they can stop it by appearing strong, and that they can hope the bully moves on to hurt another child.
Kindness, on the other hand, is active compassion and connection built out of intentional service to others. It accounts for its impacts. Kindness can be maintaining close ties to problematic people out of genuine love, and resting on the strength of that relationship to discuss difficult topics. Kindness can also be setting boundaries that limit our exposure to people who mean us harm, and using our energies instead to provide radical advocacy for oppressed people. Kindness exists in many places across the spectrum of justice. Kindness looks like states taking steps to assess children for childhood trauma (and presumably moving to include identity-based injuries, such as race-based traumatic stress, in the ACEs assessment). It looks like entire school systems addressing the problem of bullying by teaching children about boundaries, consent, and cooperation. It looks like zero tolerance policies that elevate – and at the very least believe – children who speak out against bullying while at the same time placing bullies into programs that help them work through their inner turmoil and learn better coping skills.
In Ellen’s case, kindness could have been saying that she had found common ground with Mr. Bush, acknowledging his problematic positions, and using her proximity to him to advocate for the rights of disenfranchised people. It could have been using her white and economic privilege as a unsettling force. It could have been openly recognizing that Mr. Bush holds views that fundamentally conflict with her own. Views that inflict intentional harm on people she loves. Or, she could have joined the ranks of those who rightfully decry the massive injustices faced by enormous segments of our population.
I understand the conflict as I admittedly feel compelled to stay connected to people in order to be what may be the only contentious voice in their lives. I believe I’m responsible for using my privilege and my access to challenge my peers to abandon destruction in favor of restoration. I hope to use my voice to give them pause in the voting booth as I contextualize the effects of their choices, correct the misinformation they receive, and quell their anger that rages against the unknown.
I believe there’s kindness in connecting with the humanity in people who do harm and urging them to stop. And, I believe there is kindness in stepping back and standing up for people whose needs are not being met. Both are valid forms of activism. But, I do not see Ellen doing either as she digs in her heels regarding her relationship with Mr. Bush. I hope that she does carry the activism she wields in other areas of her life into this friendship. I hope that it’s already happening and she just hasn’t found a way to express it. And, I hope we, as Peaceful Parents, strive to understand the difference between niceness and kindness, and to acknowledge that Peaceful Parenting is going to be divisive in a culture that actively advances the status quo. Niceness is permissive. Kindness is brave.