One late afternoon over the weekend, I was sitting on a crowded underground train on the Piccadilly line heading home. There were six more stations until my destination. As the train door opened, countless people rushed in to fit into the already-crammed space. A mother, carrying her young daughter in her arms, managed to squeeze into the space in front of my seat. The moment I saw her struggle to carry her child among the crowd, I spoke to her earnestly without hesitation. “Would you like to sit down?” I asked.
A bright spark in her eyes momentarily lit up her expression. For a second, as her radiant expression captured my attention, I realized she was beautiful. Both she and her child had golden, luscious, wavy hair reminiscent of rippled water under the bright sun. She glanced at her child’s tired face and then at me. “Yes, please,” she murmured. No one in the crowd seemed to care as we swapped places. As I stood up, she said to her child, “Mary, say thank you to this kind lady.” Mary looked at me with her round blue eyes, then turned to her mother and asked, “What is ‘kind’?”
Perhaps it was her blue eyes, or maybe it was this question that ignited my thoughts about kindness.
Kindness is not simply being nice.
In daily conversation, one common misunderstanding is the conflation of “kind” with “nice.” I observe that these two words are frequently used interchangeably. However, their implications are vastly different. I believe being kind is not the same as being nice; the essence of the two behaviors starkly contrasts.
Being nice is rooted in passivity and submission.
Nice – adj. “pleasant, pleasing or agreeable in nature, socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous”. (Source)
On the other hand, being kind is an assertive act characterized by mercy and compassion.
Kind – adj. “having or showing a tender, considerate, and helpful nature; tolerant and forgiving under provocation.” (Source)
On the surface, it might seem like there’s little difference between the two. However, it’s crucial to differentiate because some mistakenly believe that success cannot be achieved through kindness. Articles such as The Guardian’s “Sometimes – unfortunately – being an asshole is the way to get ahead” often misconstrue the submissive actions of niceness as kindness.
A person who is merely nice takes agreeable, pleasing actions to be viewed positively by others, often with the conditional expectation of reciprocation. Niceness is rooted in fear: fear of disagreement, unpopularity, or of not getting what one desires. For instance, searching “nice guy” on Quora yields endless questions on why “nice guys” aren’t treated as they expect. I believe the question answers itself – it’s because they’re merely “nice.” Placing expectations on others is a surefire way to become emotionally dependent on their reactions.
Take the “nice guy” Harry as an example. Harry acts in a way that he thinks will be perceived positively by his potential partner, hoping these submissive actions will yield a relationship. But this is rarely the outcome.
Being nice with the expectation of something in return isn’t truly “nice” – it’s manipulative. Harry may believe there’s an implicit exchange: his “niceness” for a relationship. This tactic is deceptive, and most women, whether consciously or subconsciously, are wary of it. Harry fails to see the individual as a person and treats them as a mere objective. Instead of being direct about his feelings, Harry believes that if he’s “nice”, he will receive something in return.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are two sources of power: having what others desire or what they fear. Harry’s approach is typically a losing game because the person he desires has the power in the interaction. When Harry doesn’t achieve his goal, he wonders why there’s no reciprocity. He fails to understand that niceness, with its root in fear and conditions, is often a losing strategy.
What should Harry do? He should understand his “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA), be direct with his feelings, and if rejected, show that he has a strong BATNA by moving on. This reclaims power. While this might not be a “nice” act, it’s a kind one. Harry isn’t trying to appease, but he is understanding and respectful.
Kindness is a continuous practice of altering perspectives.
This example highlights my view of kindness – an assertive act based on courage, not fear. The key difference between kindness and niceness is the expectation of reciprocation. Expecting returns can lead to dependency and anxiety.
Kindness involves stepping into another’s shoes. It’s a combination of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Being able to change perspective is essential for success in relationships. Contrary to some beliefs, a kind person can rise to the top. In the book “The Charisma Myth”, different types of charisma are discussed, including “kindness charisma”. Figures like Princess Diana and the Dalai Lama are prime examples of this.
Kindness is peace.
To me, elegance starts from within and is rooted in kindness. A kind person exudes grace, positivity, peace, and respect.
Being kind when one’s emotions are in turmoil or when burdened by life’s challenges is difficult. Yet, it’s often the most needed. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” – Plato. The scarcity of kindness reflects its association with the elusive state of inner peace. Recall the last time you were kind; did you feel at peace?
This is indeed a lengthy explanation for young Mary. When she asked, “What is kind?”, I was captivated by her blue eyes and simply smiled. She then excitedly said to her mother, “Mom, she is pretty!”
At that moment, she unknowingly practiced kindness, seeing the world from my perspective. I felt the same way about her.