What do people mean by “nice?”

I was talking to a male friend the other day about the expression “nice guys finish last” and why niceness may be looked down on. “Is niceness bad?” was his main question.

And I think it really depends on what people mean by “nice.”

“Nice” doesn’t necessarily mean good, thoughtful, or genuinely kind. For both men and women, it generally refers to something more bland and superficial, like basic manners. So people may wonder if there’s more to you than niceness. What other qualities do you have?

For some individuals, niceness seems like a brittle shell barely covering a miasma of unpleasant or hostile feelings, such as peevishness, rage, self pity, cruel glee, and bitterness. It’s this barely concealed miasma, and not the niceness itself, that tends to push people away.

Another use for “nice” is a description of unassertiveness. (I don’t use “nice” to refer to unassertiveness, but some people do.) A “nice guy” may be someone who lets other people walk all over him. Maybe he doesn’t stand up for himself or show that he has boundaries and standards that help protect him against manipulation or predation. In this sense, “nice” is a softer word for doormat. And if someone behaves like a doormat, they usually don’t get ahead, and they may very well finish last. In any case, it’s possible to be assertive without acting like a jerk, though of course there are people who will step on anybody to get ahead.

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