top of page

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