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Oliver Johnston: The difference between being nice and being kind in conversation

Posted April 4

A few years ago I had a conversation with my cousin Stephen. We were catching up over lunch. He said something to me that was initially very offensive, and still sticks with me years later: "You are a really nice person, but it comes off very fake." Taken aback, I asked him to explain more. He shared that my perma-smile and optimistic attitude just didn’t feel genuine. He didn’t connect with my attitude.

As someone who loves to connect with others and considers himself a true friend, this took me by surprise. How could my niceness be limiting my connection with others?

Since that lunch I’ve processed what he shared and have realized that niceness can actually limit our ability to connect with others. I’ve also discovered that being kind is not synonymous with being nice.

The warmth of being kind will overpower the pleasant positivity of niceness every time. Being aware of the difference can bring real meaning to relationships.

The Best Day Ever!

We have all met people like my cousin described. Individuals who seem to always have their lives together, who are always having the “BEST DAY EVER!”, who seem satisfied with standard surface level responses to questions. When difficulty arises, their overwhelming, unquestioned optimism seems to not leave room to process reality. Their constant high of how great life is overshadows reality. They are being nice.

Some people are naturally optimistic and I’m not encouraging us to stop being that way. What is important is to gauge whether the person you are talking with is on a different emotional level than you are at that moment. Leading with extreme positivity may squash the conversation and not allow for someone else to share their insecurity or vulnerability because of your euphoria.

We need to leave room for hard things and difficult days. When we turn a bad day into a great day, or when we turn an average day into an amazing day it does not allow us to connect with reality or with the person we’re conversing with.

We need to give permission to be sad sometimes, to be upset, to be "not OK." Being nice doesn’t allow for that, and can leave others feeling inadequate. Rough days are normal. We need to make allowance for that in our communication.

Being nice is socially acceptable

Complete emotional vulnerability with strangers or even acquaintances isn’t socially acceptable. With unfiltered vulnerability off the table, we default to being cordial, to being nice. We may do this for many reasons. Whether to mask our own insecurities, meet self-imposed expectations, or just to fit in.

Before my chat with Stephen I projected this emotional stability in hopes for connection. In hopes that others would perceive me as someone they could trust and rely on. Instead, as it turns out, I seemed inauthentic and out of touch with reality. I realize now that people would not share their challenges unless I was honest and open with my own struggles. Human relationships consist of give and take, mutual support.

Niceness projects that we have everything in order, that we are a pillar for others, but niceness also projects that we are unavailable for true connection. Kindness, however, can display even more self-confidence while also leaving room for deep emotional connection.

The case for kindness

While niceness maintains a facade that our lives are together and assumes that same status quo for others, kindness gives permission for real success and failure. Kindness defaults to an understanding that life can be hard, but that emotional support helps. Kindness understands that today’s successes may not be here tomorrow and therefore should be celebrated. It accepts the reality of today.

When we approach a conversation with the understanding that we each have hectic lives and that some crazy thing could be going on, it builds a social awareness. Waiting to bring up our "my-life-is-completely-put-together" attitude to a conversation allows us to first gauge the situation of the conversation. Understanding that we each have daily challenges and letting the other person set the tone for the conversation, whether they are willing to share or not, helps.

Get a gauge on the other person in the conversation before sharing your successes. We each carry around successes and likely failures. Happy moments and life stresses. What we choose to share in a conversation can determine what the other person is allowed to share. If we begin a conversation by immediately sharing our great daily success and incredible happiness it may not leave room for the other person to share their low points. If you want to get below the surface in a conversation, come with an understanding of your personal reality and be willing to share, just as you are willing to listen to the other person’s highs and lows as well.

Being willing to share both the highs and the lows of our life creates a connection and builds trust. Kindness allows for these to be shared, while the ever-positive niceness leaves little room for vulnerability and weakness. There is a lack of true warmth in niceness that is present in kindness. Somehow the insecure positivity of being nice overshadows any benefits of asking how another’s day is going. Niceness does not project an attitude of listening, and instead of a social obligation.

How do we set the tone for kindness?

When someone has a "nice wall" up the tone is set for brief, shallow conversation. Neither person is truly listening, and neither is truly saying anything. Autonomous conversation. Obligatory interactions.

The tone of a conversation can be set with the common question "How are you?" or "How is your day going?" This question is asked often, with the common default response:

‘I’m great! How are you?’

This response embodies niceness. It is positive but autonomous, given without thought, and gives no insight into how you are truly doing. To bring connection into conversation think about either asking the question "How are you doing?" differently, or responding differently.

If you are asked, respond genuinely. Take a moment and truly consider how you are doing that day, at that time. An honest, thoughtful answer opens a window into a deeper conversation. It may throw your friend off, but sets a tone for real connection. If you are struggling with something think about sharing. Such vulnerability elicits empathy and sparks kindness.

When you talk with others the goal should be to find out the other person’s reality. Getting to either celebrate or sorrow together. This ability to get beyond surface responses often comes from the questions we ask. Rather than asking the expected "How are you?" we can switch up the questions to something more sincere, like:

"I remember you were doing _______. How is that going?"

'I’ve missed you! How have you been?"

"What’s been on your mind lately?"

"Hey, it’s good to see you. What’s been going on in your life?"

These questions ask the same thing, but have the potential for very different responses. The goal is to be sincere, and demonstrate that in our questions, with our listening and with our demeanor. Whether we know it or not, we evaluate each other in every conversation: Do they really care? Are they listening to me? If I shared what is truly in my heart how would they receive it? Do I feel safe? Kindness aims to answer each of these questions with a YES!

Aim for kindness instead of niceness

Looking back on that conversation with my cousin I am glad that he was so honest with me. His straightforward feedback was a form of kindness. It has since transformed my relationships with other people and allowed me to have more richness in my interactions.

Surface level conversations are all around us. We often go through the motions, maintaining our status quo with each other. The reality, though, is that many of us enter into conversations to build relationships, to make deeper connections. For some reason we settle for simple responses in conversation while we both ignore the deeper connection that is possible.

Focusing on bringing kindness into the conversation, by bringing our reality into the conversation and allowing others to do the same, will bring serious satisfaction into our relationships. As I’ve stopped masking reality through constant niceness, and sought to share what is truly in my heart, relationships have blossomed. Instead of having my honest emotions drive people away, it’s brought them closer. This emotional honesty has been refreshing for me, and for those close to me.

Give it a try. What aspects of niceness do you notice in your relationships? How could you see yourself being more kind?

Stuck between an introvert and extrovert, Oliver does a lot of thinking about human connection. Much of this is around how to form truly meaningful relationships in a social media-filled world. Oliver is most likely to be found in one on one conversation or musing at givegrats.com.

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