Nice Is Not Tender

(at least not in the Emotional World)

There is an old saying, “Wouldn’t it be a swell world if everyone was as nice to you as the person who is trying to swindle you?”  All you have to do is to envision the prototypical car salesman or realtor.  Wouldn’t that be swell indeed?  Well, no.  That is because nice has almost nothing in common with being tender toward another human being. 

It is not uncommon to hear someone described glowingly, “She (or he) is so nice.”  This is often said in such a way as to indicate character strength or a force that one could depend upon in a critical moment.  The car salesman will most likely not show up at your hospital bed in the middle of a crisis. 

At its heart, the word “nice” is a social convention and a good one.  It is much more pleasant to deal with well-mannered people than perfect ogres.  At the heart of nice is a quid pro quo: you treat me well and I will treat you well.  If you misbehave, I might run out of nice very quickly.  “I was so nice to him and then he treated me badly.”  This describes the captive nature of nice.  I’ll be nice to you, but my “not nice” can show up in an instant and retaliate or condemn.

It is not as if nice is not a positive.  It is.  It connotes positivity.  Some of the words defining nice are: “affable, agreeable, considerate, enjoyable, pleasing and attractive.”*  And the definitions of the word “tender” also relay its positive qualities: “marked by responding to or expressing the softer emotions; careful to keep from harm or injury.”*

It is by looking at the synonyms that the gap between these two words becomes more obvious. Those for nice are: “dainty, fastidious, finical, particular, fussy, squeamish and pernickety.* (I had always heard of “persnickety” but not pernickety.  When I looked it up, the definition was persnickety!) The synonyms for tender are: “responsive, compassionate, sympathetic, warm and warm-hearted.” This is quite a difference.

In the larger scheme of life, the distinctions between these two words do not matter terribly.  That is not the case when engaged in the Emotional World.  Imagine being in a vulnerable moment.  Would you rather be in the presence of someone who is fussy, “with a hint of querulousness” or finical, which “describes an affected, capricious fastidiousness that sometimes seems composed partly of a determination to be displeased or dissatisfied?”

It is hard to assume that this person could switch into the realm of tenderness, where warm “indicates a ready capacity for love and affection,” and compassionate describes “a disposition easily moved to pity, mercy or tolerance for others.” 

The key is the ability to switch.  Someone who has the capacity to be tender can easily switch into that mode when the situation calls for it.  We have all been in the presence of someone who does not seem the least bit affected by an immediate plight right before them, yet that person might easily be accurately described as being nice.  If the elevator only goes to nice, it is not possible to go further up the emotional rungs into the realm of expressed compassion.

It is not that the “nice” person consciously wants to withhold adequate surcease for an injury. It is just that the person does not have it to give. The Emotional World, like the Practical World, calls for a specific set of skills and qualities.  Warmth is the essential quality for success in the world of emotions.  The essential skill is being comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Being in the presence of vulnerability, one’s own or that of others, can stimulate a particular kind of stress, or discomfort.  And it cannot be fixed by immediate action or by formula. 

It is important to know the difference and not assume that “niceness” connotes “tenderness.”  The really good news is that tender can be learned.  Once learned, then one can switch into the Emotional World and all of its skills.  Extending tenderness is its own reward and does not look for a reciprocal response, as does nice.   

*All of the definitions and synonyms in this post are quoted from: Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary, 1981.  And yes, that would be quoted from a book that is on paper.

John McNeelComment