The other day I got caught in a discussion on ‘nice people’. Is there any such thing?
‘Nice’ is one of those socially defined words that can mean anything from ‘helps old Mrs. Jenkins across the street’ to ‘cleans her house compulsively every two hours’. And if we move past its ambiguity and fix on some arbitrary definition, even then it’s still a contrary concept.
nice (adj): pleasant; kind; good or satisfactory
-Collins Dictionary & Thesaurus
For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll take ‘nice’ to mean ‘doing things that are of benefit to other people, without seeming to consider oneself’. And that’s my arbitrary definition. Notice I said ‘without seeming to consider oneself’? There’s the rub. When is ‘nice’ just a selfless way of being, and not something you consciously put on to make yourself feel better?
Marsha sees Ruby crying, and goes to find out what’s wrong, tries to cheer her up etc.
I think we can all agree that Marsha would be considered a nice person. But what if Martha had an ulterior motive, like she she only wanted Ruby to stop crying because crying people annoy her? Or, she wanted to get in Ruby’s good graces so she could borrow her earrings later. Would Martha still be a nice person?
Mrs. Rose is a Christian who helps out with all her church outreach programmes and is always the first one to visit the sick and shut in members.
Mrs. Rose is a nice person, right? But what if I told you that Mrs. Rose converted to Christianity after hearing that she would be punished for eternity if she didn’t? That she believes she is doing all these ‘nice’ things just to secure her place in heaven? Would she still be a nice person?
Bobby loves to help out at homeless shelters and other volunteer service programmes. He loves the feeling of doing something to help other people.
By today’s standards, Bobby is the ideal ‘nice’ person. He does things for other people without expecting a reward or anything. But he loves the feeling of doing something to help other people. So, really, he’s doing all these nice things just to feel good about himself.
The last two examples are the categories most people fall into. If they’re not doing nice things to improve their chances in the afterlife, then they’re doing nice things so they can feel like a nice person. But what’s all the hype about nice people anyway?
Nice people finish last
Society claims to love nice people then it spits out witticims like nice people finish last. They tell guys to be nice to girls and then laugh when those guys end up friendzoned. It’s a walking contradiction.
But if we stopped concentrating on being nice people and started working more on doing nice things then we wouldn’t have to continuously be evaluating our self-worth against a fickle standard.
In each of those examples it’s pretty clear that the actions of Marsha, Mrs. Rose and Bobby were nice, whether or not their motives were. And that’s what we should be worrying about. It’s true that for some people the motives are just as important as the actions themselves (lawyers, Christians, etc.) but for the majority of us just trying to get along in a dog-eat-dog world, good deeds are enough.
Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Some of the rich people he robbed from use their money to finance scholarships for people who can’t afford school. Some of the poor people he gives to use the money to party/buy drugs when their children need food and clothes.
Evaluate the ‘niceness’ of all three groups of people in the above example. What makes their actions ‘nice’ or not?