One Small Voice: The difference between ‘kind’ and ‘nice’

by Lynn Mandaville

Recently, I had an experience at our local pharmacy that got me pondering the meanings of two seemingly synonymous words.

The experience was this:

I was filling a prescription for oxycodone for my husband. He had just been released from the ER after six hours for treatment of excruciating, non-specific pain, and we were finally on our way home. The pharmacist who took the prescription said it would take about 30 minutes to fill the scrip because of new government regulations and protocols for the drug in question.

So while she began the process of entering data into her computer, I made small talk, noting that she wore a lovely turquoise bracelet, the kind of  Native American jewelry for which I have a particular liking. Then Dave and I settled in for the long wait while she finished up the process.

To my surprise, the prescription was ready in just five minutes, and I thanked the young man who rang up the sale. He gave full credit to the female pharmacist who had expedited things. She smiled and said she had set aside all other prescriptions waiting to be filled and did ours out of order “because you were so nice.”

When I looked puzzled, she told me that very few customers are nice to her, and she wanted us to know she appreciated it by taking good care of us.

Of course, I was most grateful. It meant I could get Dave home, settled in his favorite chair, and on the way to pain relief with his new medication. But what had I done that was so nice?

Since then I have been pondering her characterization of me as “nice,”  because I wasn’t so sure I’m a nice person. I spent some time reading the Merriam-Webster definitions of the words “nice” and “kind.”  What I learned might be as interesting to you as it was to me.

Merriam-Webster defines them as follows:

Nice — adjective; showing fastidious or finicky tastes; particular; exacting in requirements or standards; punctilious. Synonyms included correct, accurate, exact, precise.

Kind — adjective; of a generous or warmhearted nature; showing sympathy or understanding; humane. Synonyms included benevolent, loving, affectionate.

Neither definition cited the other word as a synonym. Although in our society we use nice and kind interchangably, nice and kind are not, technically, the same thing.

Based on the definitions, it seems to me that “kind” is something that one simply is, something that is inherent in a person. “Nice” seems to be something that one has to intend to be,  requiring some degree of effort. In other words, I may be a sympathetic, understanding person by nature, but act in a manner that does not measure up to an exacting standard of conduct.

I could care instinctively when you get hit by a beer truck and race to your aid without thinking, then say to the newsperson interviewing me that you were an incredible meathead to walk blindly into the street in the first place. Kind in action and not nice in words.

Or I could do the opposite. Watch coldly while you get hit by the beer truck, then say sympathetically to the interviewer how unfair life is, and that my thoughts and prayers are with you, the victim, and your family. Unkind in action, but nice in my rhetoric.

I do know this about myself. I am a kind person. My natural inclination is to be understanding, and I was sympathetic toward the pharmacist’s position as a pharmaceutical professional bound by laws and protocols.   

But, back to the original premise, was I a nice person? I guess so. I conducted myself within a certain, though unwritten, standard of conduct in the retail situation. Small talk, done courteously, despite the annoyance of yet another governmental bureaucracy getting in my way. But it did take effort, a mental deep breath, before putting on the smile and getting out of my shoes and into hers before opening my mouth.

When viewed through the eyes of the pharmacist, what does this say about our culture? I did point out to the pharmacist that she is exposed to people at their most vulnerable. When they come to see her, many of them are ill or injured, uncomfortable with symptoms  and pain that put them on the edge when it comes to being tactful or diplomatic, in other words, nice.

No matter how kind they may naturally be, she deals with them at their least nice. But other people I know who work with the public will confirm that the kindest of people can be very un-nice.

A simple examination of two small words has caused me to view our current, national attitudes in a new way. All those people who don’t agree with me aren’t unkind. Most of them have good hearts and minds. They are naturally inclined to do good, to love and feel compassion for their fellow humans, and to walk humbly with their God.

What we collectively aren’t very good at is being nice. Being nice requires work, consistency, and the elevation of the kindness that already exists within us.

We should all roll up our mental sleeves and get to work on our “nice.”


  • Could not agree more, A saying I like a good bit, picked up in years if living in the south is “thank you kindly”. We need to appreciate those who help us, kindness and nice are contagious it is one of the things we need more of.
    Thank you kindly for the column.

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