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Why nobody wants to be nice

The history of the empty pleasantry

"You look nice. That dress is nice. It goes with your nice new haircut. I hope you have a nice time. The food there is really nice."

And off you head for what you already know will be a completely forgettable evening.

We all describe a something, or compliment a someone, with this harmless little adjective every day. It's a perfectly pleasant pleasantry. Said with a little smile, it is a simple way of showing how, well, nice, we are for being, you know, nice.

This ubiquity may make nice populist. It doesn't make it popular. We welcome it in conversation but resent its presence for being there. It's like the friend you naturally invite to everything because you see no reason not to. But as soon as they arrive, you wish you hadn't.

It’s a friend whose presence impacts the whole environment surrounding them. You feel the value of your property sharply decreasing as soon as this friend - laden with bags of negative connotation and inference - steps through your front door.

Nice is like the gaudy, ill-fitting Primark outfit worn by this friend at your wedding.

It doesn't go unnoticed.


Why are there so many negative connotations to a word that is just trying to be friendly? Why is there so much disdain that we are moved to explain its worthlessness to our children, seconds after they have learned how it is spelled.

Do you recall who told you - warned you - about the dangers of nice?

For me, it was my teacher in Second-Year Infants. Her name was Mrs Sullivan. I didn’t know her first name. I still don’t. For all I know, she may not have had a first name. Maybe her first name was just “Mrs”. Though that would be rather unusual.

After Second-Year Infants, Mrs Sullivan took me again for First-Year Juniors. Generally these aren’t seen to be the most formative years in childhood but — clearly benefiting from the context of my lack of familial security and my inability to make friends — it was Mrs Sullivan who can take much of the credit for making me the person I am today.

Mrs Sullivan liked me. Sometimes on ‘Drizzle Days’, she would let me stay behind in the classroom instead of having to spend a coatless hour not playing football with the other kids on the sodden school field.

For about a week, I thought that Mrs Sullivan had moved classes for the sole purpose of teaching me again. Perhaps being away from me had proven too difficult for her.

Not difficult because she had a crush on me or anything. That would be weird.

Besides, I think she was a lesbian.

Anyway, Mrs Sullivan. She was nice. Very nice.

Which is ironic really.


Back in those days, I wasn’t very good at painting — not that I am implying Van Gogh tendencies popped up in later life, but I can handle a Crayola. Noticing this, and to avoid me presenting balls of newspaper dripping in flour and water every week we did papier mache, Mrs Sullivan would sit me on a stool in the corner with the special pencil, and ask me to write a poem instead.

Like, the class would be painting their favourite birds, and I wrote:

“Hey little sparrow, perching on the barrow I hope you’re not a thief And you stay on the straight and narrow”

Or, during a class outing to a local park, the class would be making a collage from the twigs, moss and bracken that they collected, and I would sit on the park bench writing:

“I really like those chocolate bars And the man says ‘Here, take two’ But I say “No sir, thank you” And I won't join you in the loo”

One January, Mrs Sullivan was returning my Christmas holiday homework — a poem entitled ‘Christmas Weather, Brrrr’. It had been given a mark of 8 out of 10. Good had been written by the mark.

There was no V before the Good.

I became quite unhappy. This may have been demonstrated by a sudden fit of uncontrollable tears. Obviously I can’t be sure as it was many years ago.

[Side Note

It’s worth highlighting that an 8 from Mrs Sullivan was the equivalent to a 9 from most other teachers. That’s not me being over-defensive of my work; she would tell you herself if you asked her. Though I imagine she’s dead by now.

When we had joined her class, she had explained to the hushed group of 20-odd 5 and 6-year-olds that it was her policy not to give full marks to creative work produced by a child. Not because she was cruel, she said, but because she was logical. And it was illogical to think that a child of our age group, would have the ability to achieve the level of perfection that full marks required.

I guess she had a point.

In a Dickensian Orphans’ Home sort of way.

End Side Note]

Anyway, as you would expect, I asked for help in understanding why I had lost the one mark. She pointed to a couplet in Verse 2:

“With Christmas comes the snow and ice, The whiteness makes the world look nice”.

To be fair, it isn’t the most imaginative description and you can see my understanding of poetic structure was firmly based on AABA or AABB. But neither of these facts had impacted the mark.

It was the use of nice.

Nice was a word without meaning, as Mrs Sullivan called it. If a writer used nice, she told me, it was a sign that they possessed a low vocabulary and pitiful IQ.

She didn't use the word 'stupid' but said it was the sort of word she would expect to see Mikey Lashmore use. He was good at sports. And at making farting noises under his armpit.

What she didn't tell me was the reason for the weakness of this adjective. How the assignations we give it today are the result of a twisty-turny journey the word has had since it was popularised in the English language.

She didn’t mention that changes in societal structure had seen nice fly from meaning to meaning, positive and negative, until it had landed, rather unsure of itself, where it is today.

Being nice wasn't always nice

Nice was first appropriated in English in the 14th century (via the French) from its Latin origin nescius, meaning 'ignorant' or 'not aware'.

Originally, the English used it at this most basic derivation. Unaware of things. Not intelligent. Stupid. If it was 1320 and someone called you nice, you’d probably be too much of a dumbass to care.

In the 15th century, we delved a bit more into the original definition and “lack of awareness” took prevalence over “lack of knowledge”. With the extreme divisions of wealth in the country at this time, the working classes saw the upper classes as having no awareness of the “real world”. So, the insult became that the upper classes were nice in the sense of being nice but dim.

The specificity to class led to nice taking on a broader meaning over time, encompassing other characteristics seen in this social group. Nice became the catch-all term that described the decadent, effete and fussy mannerisms of the simpering classes (the sort often played by Hugh Laurie in any series of BlackAdder).

Perhaps disinclined to argue, the victims of the insults didn’t care a tiddlybob what the hoi polloi thought. Instead of running from the words, as often happens, they reclaimed nice as their own . The proof points above remained largely the same, but they were interpreted as aspirational rather than derisory.

Ugly decadence became expensive luxury. An effete manner was a flirtatious coyness. Fussiness showed an abundance of good taste. Behaviours that were mocked became signifiers of success. Affected mannerisms representative of a class and financial standing that others coveted.

Suddenly, people wanted to be nice.

Which is where it landed. One minute stupid, the next insulting, then a sort of compliment but of middling ground. With this as its ‘teenage years’, it grew up to be the positive-but-not-that-positive-and-a-bit-bland-really general compliment that we have been taught to avoid from childhood.

Does #benice mean anything at all?

It’s likely you remember being told to avoid writing nice when writing something meaningful. You may have been told by your own Mrs Sullivan. My Mrs Sullivan may have been imbibed in the spirit of my grammar checking programme which has had a meltdown due to the repetition of nice in this piece.

But you may not have known its etymology. The chances are that when you see nice being used, you may well cast judgment on the writer rather than paying attention to its intent.

Think about it. Would you buy an outfit from a shop because it advertised nice clothes? Consider the bank offering a nice loan? Go to dinner at a restaurant cooking nice meals?

Possibly, but you’d likely be thinking “bless the rather dim people offering that. They need all the support they can get with such meagre intelligence to survive on”.

Which wouldn’t be very nice now, would it?

So its appropriation in a hashtag is a somewhat glib attempt to show qualities in ourselves without really having to, you know, be very nice at all.

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