Nice Versus Kind

Sometimes you overhear things.

One of the things I have overheard a lot lately is this idea that nice and kind are different. It is important, then, to know the difference.

Personally, I’m a little leery of these accidental distinctions. Invent a technical distinction between, say Verification vs. Validation or Delivery Vs. Deployment can save time for “insiders.” For outsiders, it can be frustrating to hear someone make a big deal out of something that seems basically the same.

Now, about nice vs. kind.

One of my journalism tricks is to ask people what they mean. They laugh and imply that it is obvious, and the journalist in me takes over: I may know what it means, but my readers probably don’t. Could you put it in your words?

When I heard crickets, that’s when things get tough. That has happened about four or five times with nice vs. kind. I even went to read a book, No More Mr Nice Guy, by Robert Glover. The criticism I read of the book matched my own experience, in that “nice” wasn’t ever defined. It seemed to be whatever was causing problems for the character in the case study, and in some cases these seem to be opposing things.

I do, however, know a few tricks to move the conversation forward.

A logjam trick

Ward Cunningham, creator of the Wiki, once proposed something now known as Cunningham’s law: The best way to find the definition is somethiing on the internet is to offer an incorrect one.

So here you have my own, personal, terrible definition of the distinction between Nice and Good.

Nice is, believe it or not, is selfish. Someone being nice is thinking about how to act to make themselves look good; it is internal-facing. That is, you hope to do good things, or things that look good in the external world, in order to gain acceptance, approval, respect and the support of others. People who are trapped in nice-ness (The so-called “nice guys”) are people-pleasers. They want others to think they are good, so they put on a show of putting others first. This leads to the classic “nice guys finish last.” The problem is the motivation. They aren’t focused on the other person’s problems as much as having the other person like them. It would be nice to let your daughter stay up extra late to watch TV – but that might not be good for her. It would be nice to give the drying-out alcoholic a drink, but it would certainly not be good for them.

To be Kind is to care about other people’s best interests above your own.  It is to be actually other-focused, without thought for self. In Downton Abbey, when Mr Molesley offers to help Daisy with her education, we fail to realize how little free time servants had at that time. He was making a personal sacrifice. He wasn’t the right age for Daisy, he wasn’t hitting on her, and he expected nothing. Mr Molesley did not even expect gratitude. He was only looking for the joy of seeing Daisy develop as a person. By the end of the series, Mr. Molesley has left service to be a teacher. It might be kind to deny an alcoholic a drink, or to insist the children go to bed.

Mr moseley and daisy
Mr Moseley was more kind than nice

Framed this way, kindness is virtue, while niceness is … something else.

Of course, I could be wrong. The point was to start the conversation, not finish it.

Cunningham’s Law: Applied

When you find yourself asking questions in circles and getting a lot of “it depends”, you can say “if I had to draw a conclusion from what I know so far, I would say (definitions); do I have it right?” Then the other poor person who finally has something to respond to will say “oh no, that’s not right” and finally be able to respond eloquently to the topic. You risk looking a bit foolish, but you get a much better answer much more quickly than the thousand questions route. Sometimes we have these sorts of problems, where one cannot find the answer until a failed attempt is made at a solution. Two decades ago, we used to call them Wicked Problems, though I see the term has moved on a bit. If you want to read a really fantastic, though dated book that explains a lot of the “why” and “how” the software world ended up with (being stuck at) Scrum, take a look at Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catalogue of Modern Software Engineering Paradigms, published by DeGrace and Stahl back in 1990.

As for today, I’ve proposed a definition for Nice and Kind. Tell me how I was wrong. If the article was terrible, well, at least it was short, and I taught you a consulting trick.

I hope that was kind of me.


Felix Léonie-Azélie, who I expect I disagree with on a lot of things, inspired me to write this article and engaged with me sincerely over it on twitter. I had been just about to give up on twitter as a source of real, sincere conversations. An actual, reasonable discussion with intent to seek understanding and to learn! Thank you Felix. Hope springs eternal.




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