November 13 is World Kindness Day. The annual event was launched in 1998 by a coalition of NGOs, and is observed in more than 25 countries, including Canada. The goal is to celebrate good deeds by individuals or organizations.

There are websites devoted to inspiring random acts of kindness. And at the end of every episode of Ellen, host Ellen DeGeneres says: “Be kind to one another”.

Is there a difference between being nice and being kind? I think so when it comes to communications.

Consider the definitions. Nice means being pleasant, agreeable, polite. Kind means being considerate, sympathetic, helpful.

People often use “nice” and “kind” interchangeably. But the first seems to be about what’s expected: social niceties. The second is more about what’s needed: genuine caring.

Rajshree Agarwal, a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the University of Maryland, wrote about this earlier this year for Forbes. She focused on leadership and workplace communications. The principles apply to conversations we might have with friends and loved ones too.

Agarwal notes that some people are afraid to speak the hard truths. They worry about the reaction. They want the person on the receiving end to like them. So they procrastinate. Or just dodge what they think will be a confrontation.

“Regardless of the motive, nice leaders do whatever it takes to keep the peace,” writes Agarwal. “Their avoidance of anything awkward or difficult may work in the short term. But allowing problems to fester ultimately hurts everyone.”

There are ways to critique with real regard for the other person’s welfare. In fact, just having the blunt conversation shows regard, when the goal is improvement.

Agarwal suggests that avoiding conversations to spare someone else’s feelings isn’t empathy; it’s apathy.

If you truly care about a person and are concerned about them, sidestepping a talk isn’t nice and isn’t kind.

In our personal lives, we show niceness when we don’t hurt people. We show kindness when we actually help them.

An article on the site The Conversation, from two psychologists at the University of Melbourne, talked about the niceness/kindness divide as politeness vs. compassion. The two are associated with different brain systems, the authors say. Politeness (niceness) is linked with the systems governing aggression, and compassion (kindness) with those controlling social bonding and affiliation.

To put it another way, politeness is about good manners and being decent – “good citizens”, says The Conversation. While compassion is about being emotionally concerned about others – “good Samaritans”.

Both are worthwhile. But when we relate with others, maybe it’s nicer to be kinder.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

November 13, 2019

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