No More Mr. Nice Guy

If there is one teacher responsible for my vocation as a writer, that teacher would be the one I had for fifth-grade English, Mrs. Baehr. The amount of things I learned from her in just one year is positively dazzling. She taught me where to put a comma, she drilled the difference between lie and lay into me, encouraged my creative writing talents, taught me the rudiments of public speaking, and, as the faculty member responsible for the Drama Club, showed me the basics of acting and play production as well. (My Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace under her direction was arguably my greatest stage role.)

She also taught me never to use the word beautiful.

Her argument was a sound one: the word had been used to death and, as a result of overuse, had lost nearly all of its meaning. Has one said anything when one’s said that the nature photography in the second Sissi movie is beautiful? Or that Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm are beautiful? Or that the weather is beautiful? And would you really sell your soul in exchange for a fleeting moment that was merely beautiful?

If an exceptional English teacher in 1975 proscribed beautiful, there are other words that English teachers circa 2020 would do well to drum out of the English language. One such word is nice, and, with some regret, I have decided that it’s time to kill it.

I advocate the lexical assassination with regret because I still like the idea of nice in the expression nice guy. One of my stated ambitions in life has been to be the nicest guy in the world, and I think that there’s still some meaning in that usage. A nice guy and a kind guy aren’t exactly the same thing, and pleasant, affable, generous, considerate and gentle fail to paint the full portrait of niceguydom. Still, nice guys traditionally finish last, so that would logically make us incapable of rescuing our epithet from the oblivion it otherwise deserves.

I’m afraid it’s not very nice of me, but nice has got to go.

Consider one of the most anodyne uses of the word: it’s a nice day. What does that even mean? I can understand a lovely day, a sunny day, a pleasant day – I can even understand a beautiful day – but what’s a nice day? Also hopelessly bland is nice to meet you. Although hardly great, pleased to meet you is better: at least pleased is a feeling. Alternatives such as glad, charmed, delighted and thrilled say a good deal more, however.

And can anything be said in favor of so nice of you to come and what a nice present? To say nothing of that’s nice – a supposedly responsive statement that says even less than nothing.

There was a marvelous comment on nice made by the writers of the TV series M*A*S*H: in one episode, Larry Linville as Major Frank Burns states “it’s nice to be nice to the nice.” Up until recently, that would have captured to perfection the meaninglessness that our four-letter word has accrued. Matters have gotten worse since the days of Frank Burns, however, and nice has been finished off with a more recent wave of abuse: it’s become an interjection.

I doubt whether I’m the only person who has ever received nice (or, worse, nice!) as a text message in response to something that isn’t in the least bit nice. Let’s assume someone asks you what you are doing. Here are three possible answers with their seemingly inevitable response: ‘I’m washing my underwear in the sink’. Nice. ‘I’m letting a Jello mold chill.’ Nice. (Many today would assume that means that it’s nice that I’m allowing my Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise some R&R. It’s nice to be nice to your dessert on ice.) Or ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.’ Nice.

In each of these three exchanges, none of which is the cause for the mild jubilation nice would seem to imply, I’m clearly attempting to get a conversational ball rolling and am having my attempt thwarted. ‘What kind of underwear do you like?’, for example, could be a conversation-developing response to my first statement. ‘Did you use Cool Whip as well as tinned pineapple?’ would be good question to ask after hearing that I’m making a gelatinous dessert. And ‘are you too young to have seen My Fair Lady the last time Rex Harrison took it on tour?’ would work with my third statement (which, I’d like to hope, people would recognize as not being a comment on Iberian meteorology.)

Instead: nice.

Which lets the conversational ball sink betwixt the interlocutory flippers and be lost forever.

There are certainly other frequently texted responses that kill the conversation: cool, ok[ay] and ah are all offenders. I admit that I’ve been guilty of ah, although I’m generally careful to begin a new topic after I’ve killed the previous one. (For example: ‘ah…but did you know that the ants in France stay mainly on the plants?’)

Nice just strands you on a conversational Naxos in a manner that always strikes me as impolite. Perhaps I’m oversensitive in this, but I often feel that nice implies ‘you haven’t amused me sufficiently…say something else.’

Nice as an interjection is almost entirely a feature of text messages. I don’t think anyone would say nice in a real conversation in quite that way. While ‘I’m making baked Alaska for breakfast’, would likely earn itself a nice by text message, an interlocutor in the same room would be more likely to say ‘that sounds delicious, can I stay to breakfast?’. In person one also has the option of answering with any number of non-verbal cues (lip-smacking, tummy-rubbing, or gagging faces for those who don’t care for omelette norvégienne or who think that ice cream is inappropriate for breakfast), none of which are available to the person on the other end of an exchange of text messages. Conversation face-to-face is inevitably richer than what one can have by typing into those infernal cell phones we all have, but there is no reason why a text conversation need be so poverty-stricken as to call for nice as an answer. With a little bit more effort, a better response can always be found. Conversation is, after all, both an art and a skill. Using nice as an answer shows little aptitude for either.

Given the sheer linguistic indigence of nice, I find it amusing that Walgreens should have chosen Nice! as the name for their proprietary brand of food and household goods. Perhaps they think that the exclamation point brings the term back to life. That could well be the logic of a software company called NICE that puts the word in capitals. On the other hand, I’d suggest to the Nice Branding Agency in Nashville that their prospective clients might be more apt to go with a firm with a name closer to Excellent Branding Agency.

As for the city in the South of France, it’s on its own.

Thus the time has come to retire nice from the Standard American English lexicon. As a member of the Society of International Nice Guys (SING for short), I shall be sorry to see it go in a sense…but I shan’t miss getting nice as an answer to something I’ve texted.

I’m not sure what’s become of Mrs. Baehr in the 45 years since that production of Arsenic and Old Lace. She’s probably somewhere around still…like all teachers she seemed ancient to us when we were kids, but she probably was objectively quite young when was teaching at the Lycée Français de Los Angeles. Wherever she is, I believe she would definitely lend her support to the nice ban.

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