‘Have a nice day’. ‘It costs nothing to be nice’. ‘A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person’. Depending on what sort of person you are, these phrases may provoke either a nod of agreement or a raised eyebrow. The admonition to ‘play nice’ can seem affirming and conciliatory. But it can also appear naïve and clichéd even patronizing and reproachful.

According to the ‘Big Five personality traits’ model pioneered by the psychologists Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal in the 1960s, agreeability is one of the central aspects of a person’s personality. In this view, being nice is associated with altruism and empathy, and those who lack it tend to be be uncooperative, overly competitive, quarrelsome and even manipulative. However, other psychologists stress that niceness does not come without sacrificing individuality. Dr. Evelyn Sommers has asserted ‘To be nice is to silence aspects of one’s authenticity’.[1] She argues that, by avoiding actions that might court disapproval, we submit to the thinking of the group, giving up honesty and disempowering ourselves through our own submissiveness.

Divided views about the advantages and disadvantages of being nice cut across the political spectrum. In the current US election, both candidates have asserted their own niceness. In a 2015 interview with The Washington Times, Donald Trump insisted ‘I think I’m a nice person I really do’, while Hilary Clinton released a video of Trump himself describing her as ‘smart, tough, and a very nice person’. [2] But individuals of both left and right wing persuasions can voice skepticism or antipathy towards niceness. An April 2016 blog argues that the ‘niceness’ of many white Americans has had an apocalyptic effect on race relations, proclaiming ‘when our Black siblings are crying out, “Black Lives Matter!” we continue to make human sacrifices to the altar of our bloodthirsty God of Niceness, caring more about our own comfort and security than about children dying in the streets’. [3] On the other hand, in his 1987 conservative appraisal of America, The Closing of the American Mind, the eminent political philosopher Allan Bloom attacked the younger generation for their niceness, asserting that ‘Students these days are, in general, nice’. [4] By this he meant that students were pleasant and friendly but, on the whole, shallow and self-centred, unwilling to make sacrifices for bigger causes.

As well as being associated with weakness and irresolution, niceness is linked with hypocrisy. In the nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s 1870 novel Lothair, one character exclaims ‘My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me’. [5] In a similar manner, we might say that a nice person is a person who is nice to me. Whether someone is nice or not can therefore depend on who is assessing them. Placing a premium on niceness can also entail overvaluing likeability, enervating competition and efficiency. The British journalist Katharine Whitehorn once opined that ‘No nice men are good at getting taxis’. [6] ‘Nice guys finish last’ is a cliché that demonstrates a widespread suspicion that being amiable all the time can put us at a disadvantage.

In part, our ambivalence and confusion about niceness may be the result of the word’s complicated history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the English spoken around the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the adjective ‘nice’ meant either ‘foolish’ or ‘vulgar’ deriving from the Latin adjective ‘nescius’, which meant ‘to be ignorant of’ a particular fact. The link between niceness and ignorance perhaps survives in our sense that nice people are oblivious to the ways of the world. Around five hundred years ago, the word started to assume more complex connotations: ‘coy’ then ‘fastidious’ and eventually ‘fine’ or ‘subtle’ (the latter two meanings are still regarded by some strict grammarians as the ‘correct’ ones). In the early eighteenth century, the English poet Alexander Pope equated niceness with being a busybody, asserting that ‘A person who is too nice an observer of the business of the crowd, like one who is too curious in observing the labor of bees, will often be stung for his curiosity’. [7] By the early nineteenth-century, in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) the clever young Henry Tilney made fun of the term’s vagueness and voguishness, exclaiming ‘Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.’ [8]

The ubiquity and ambiguity of the term ‘nice’, then, is a hallmark of our modernity. In a feudal world, being too amenable to others could be regarded as a betrayal of one’s one kin or even a willful act of stupidity that could cost you your life and livelihood. In more recent, urban, cosmopolitan societies, such behavior instead creates opportunities and establishes useful alliances, promoting a reputation for thoughtfulness and discrimination. In a bureaucratic and utilitarian world, we are all supposed to be having a nice day, because we are all meant to be seeking to observe the rights of others while maximizing our own self-interest. Being nasty to the waiter is therefore idiotic because amiability is a miniscule price for civilization, and the penalty for petulance can be extremely high. At the same time, our skepticism and wariness about this term reveals an underlying sense that just being nice is not good enough. Our over-valuation of nice behavior (as opposed, for instance, to bravery, creativity or ingenuity) exposes our own shallowness and frivolity.

[1] Evelyn Sommers, Tyranny of Niceness: A Psychotherapeutic Challenge, psychotherapy.net.
[2] Jennifer Harper, Donald Trump: ‘I think I’m a nice person’ — but ‘You have to counterpunch’, The Washington Times, Monday, August 3, 2015. Rosalie Chan, Hillary Clinton Releases Ad Featuring Donald Trump Praising Her Time, July 21 2016.
[3] Elle Dowd, White Niceness as the Enemy of Black Liberation, April 26 2016.
[4] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (London: Simon and Schuster, 1987) 2012 edition, p. 82.
[5] Benjamin Disraeli, Lothair (London: Longman, Green and Co.) vol. II, p.93.
[6] Quoted: Carole McKenzie, Wise Women: Wit and Wisdom from Some of the World’s Most Extraordinary Women (Edinburgh and London: Mainstream, 2013) p. 113.
[7] Alexander Pope, The Works of Alexander Pope, William Roscoe (ed.) (London: J. Rivington, 1824) vol. VII, p. 309.
[8] Jane Austen, The Novels of Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey, Reginald Brimley Johnson (ed.) (London: J. M. Dent, 1892) p. 100.