The words “nice” and “kind” are often used interchangeably to describe a positive quality in a person. From an early age, we’re told to “be nice,” and we learn about the heartwarming nature of “acts of kindness.”
But when you look into the definitions and usages for “nice” and “kind,” you’ll find they aren’t quite synonyms. In fact, one might be a preferable characteristic to strive for.
So is it better to be nice or to be kind? What does each really mean, and what is the difference? We asked experts, including psychologists and lexicographers, to break it down.
What does it mean to be “nice”?
“I would suggest that being ‘nice’ is about being polite, civilised and demonstrating high levels of social skills and etiquette,” said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor and faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
Interestingly, the word derives from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant,” but it evolved over time to hold meanings like “timid” and “faint-hearted,” and eventually its current association with synonyms like “pleasant” and “satisfying.”
“The first Dictionary.com definition of “nice” — and the one that could be considered the most likely and common — is ‘pleasing; agreeable; delightful,’” said Grant Barrett, head of lexicography at Dictionary.com.
What does it mean to be “kind”?
“I would define ‘kind’ as behaviour that’s thoughtful, caring and considerate, but also strong, confident and self-caring,” Sirota said.
Barrett similarly noted that the first Dictionary.com definition of “kind” is “of a good or benevolent nature or disposition, as a person.”
Indeed, the word kindness has roots in Middle English with the word “kinde,” which means “friendly” or “deliberately doing good to others.” It also has Germanic origins linking “kind” to the word “kin,” as in family.
Houston Kraft, author of “Deep Kindness: A Revolutionary Guide for the Way We Think, Talk, and Act in Kindness,” noted that the word kindness denotes “action, quality or state.”
“Putting the pieces together, kindness is a deliberate action of friendliness or care that chooses to see others as if they were connected to you in some meaningful way,” he said. “It is a choice to practice empathy, connection and generosity to meet the needs of another.”
What’s the difference?
“Being ‘kind’ seems to take being ‘nice’ a bit further in being gracious, generous, empathetic and hospitable,” Plante said. “It involves action and intentions beyond just politeness or niceness. Both demonstrate good social skills and a gracious manner, but I believe that being kind is a higher level of engagement, behavioural intentions and commitment than being nice.”
Thus, being kind generally requires greater effort and time. Kraft described kindness as “proactive” and “care-oriented,” whereas niceness is more “reactive” and “I-oriented.”
“Kindness moves beyond feelings and conveniences,” he said. “It is a deliberate choice to bring encouragement, support or appreciation to yourself or others. Nice is pleasant, but doesn’t usually require much pain. It is non-sacrificial and, as such, rarely makes a lasting difference. Most actions in kindness are inconvenient. It almost always costs us something ― time, effort, comfort, pride, ego. But it is those intentional, knowing sacrifices that make it meaningful.”
By contrast, he believes niceness falls short of deep impact, perhaps in part due to its roots in notions of ignorance. To be nice is about people-pleasing in service of being liked.
“It is a behavior that can masquerade as kindness, but is often motivated by selfish motives whether people are conscious of them or not,” Kraft said. “The nice person often expects something in return for their actions. They seek gratitude from the recipient even if the person wasn’t expecting — or doesn’t want — what is being given.”
Being nice might stem from a place of pride or entitlement, rather than genuine generosity. As a result, someone might get defensive if another person doesn’t accept or appreciate their niceness. This is because they’re acting out of a need for validation or approval from others.
“The nice person will help pick up trash after a long night ― but only if someone is watching so they can get the credit,” Kraft suggested. “In its worst form, this ignorance leads us to believe we are deeply good people doing good for the world when we are primarily doing good for ourselves.”
This contrast is evident in the linguistic analysis of the words nice and kind as well.
“There is one essential issue that comes up when looking into niceness: Is it sincere?” Barrett said. “We seem not to see problems with kindness, at least when looking at the language data.”
He pointed to the common use of phrases like “feign niceness,” “facade of niceness,” “veneer of niceness” and “tyranny of niceness” ― as well as the association of “niceness” with modifiers like “bland” and “phony.” Sincerity also gets called into question with expressions like, “Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest thing in the nicest way” and “Overniceness may be underniceness.”
By contrast, Barrett offered examples like “loving kindness,” “brotherly kindness,” “act of kindness,” “gesture of kindness” and the proverb, “Don’t expect to enjoy the cream of life if you keep your milk of human kindness bottled up.”
“The main ‘overlap’ is in public perception, since many people assume that kind and nice are the same thing,” Sirota said. “On the surface, an act of kindness can look similar to an act of niceness, but the motivations behind the two acts are very different, and the energy around the acts is also quite dissimilar.” While a nice person might go to great lengths to gain approval from others (potentially even causing harm in the process), a kind person engages in generous acts built on a foundation of self-love.
“They also take good care of themselves, and they don’t tolerate mistreatment or disrespect,” Siroa said. “They have good boundaries, and they feel comfortable saying ‘no.’”
Saying “no” might in fact be an act of true kindness, especially if it’s in service of someone else’s well-being.
“Sometimes being kind may mean letting someone down in the short term, maybe not leading them on if you don’t have the same feelings for them as they have for you,” said Sue Varma, author of “Practical Optimism” and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University Langone Health. “Being kind may mean not enabling an addiction, or not giving in to someone asking for something that can ultimately be harmful for them, even if they can’t see it at the time.”
So is it better to strive to be nice or to be kind?
Keeping in mind these differences between kindness and niceness, it seems clear that kindness is the better goal.
“People who are nice are always trying too hard to please, and therefore, they aren’t authentic,” Sirota said. “Any positive attention they receive is based on their pleasing persona, which means that they aren’t being loved for themselves. For this reason, they can’t actually benefit from their actions. And on top of it, they often end up resentful for constantly having to overextend themselves for a bit of affirmation.”
Indeed, people pleasers may struggle to meet the needs of others at the expense of their own needs and integrity. Those who embody the values of kindness are more likely to love themselves, rather than depend on others for their self-esteem. Thus, they can do good deeds while also being good to themselves.
“We are by default nice because nice is self-oriented,” Kraft said. “It comes from ignorance, our default state. Nice is where we start, kindness requires striving. And we should all collectively strive toward it because it is the antidote to a world divided, anxious, and lonely.”
In a time when so many people seem to lack empathy or human connection, kindness can make a major impact, both on the self and others.
“Acts of kindness trigger the release of oxytocin, fostering joy, connection and trust,” Kraft said. “These acts activate brain reward centres, boosting happiness and reducing stress. Kindness strengthens bonds, improves mood, and diminishes depression symptoms. It enhances self-esteem and self-worth, imparting personal value. It is not a nice-to-have but a must-have in our modern world.”
When asked if he believes it’s better to strive to be nice or kind, however, Plante had a different response: Why not both?
“Certainly our world needs more niceness and kindness out there, especially in our currently polarised community,” he said. “Our world is so fractured. We are very quick to be mean to each other and even cruel.”
He called on everyone to step up their efforts to be kind and nice to each other, even if they don’t like each other.
“We need more civility, hospitality, solidarity and kinship for sure,” Plante added. “Actually, our very survival may depend on it!”