Many of you could care less about whether people are nice or not. However, there also appear to be many people to whom being "nice" is a loaded topic.
For those latter of you: I think we are the willing victims of a misunderstanding.
After browsing through the nodes of niceness, guys, women, various syndromes, Sensitive New Agism, and the like, I have discovered something: people in our culture use the word "nice" manipulatively, rather than communicatively. Well, hey, that's how many people use most words, but I'm sure that's been noded to death. The issue here is the idea of the "nice person".
From the American Heritage College Dictionary, third edition, copyright 1993 (reasonably current):
nice adj 1. Pleasing and agreeable in nature. 2. Having a pleasant or attractive appearance. 3. Exhibiting courtesy and politeness. 4. Of good character and reputation; respectable. 5. Overdelicate or fastidious; fussy. 6. Showing or requiring great precision or sensitive discernment; subtle. 7. Done with delicacy and skill. 8. Used as an intensive with and: nice and warm. 9. Obsolete. a. Wanton; profligate. b. Affectedly modest; coy.
I will not bother with the obsolete uses (Webster 1913 tackles them quite sufficiently), this is a node about popular culture usage. Notice that only one of the current definitions of the word "nice" has a negative connotation -- number 5. I have yet to hear the word used that way in conversation; usually when "nice" is used negatively, it refers to a featureless or passive quality in a person's character, rather than any fastidiousness. In those cases, it is used conjunctively with "-guy" or "-girl". (Nobody ever refers to the "nice man complex".)
Otherwise, the word "nice" is... well... a nice word. A word to describe someone who is not only pleasant, but pleasing -- actively pleasant, so to speak. A word to describe someone who is attractive, liked, and admired. Niceness can either be a part of one's nature, or an action or skill (it can even mean skillful). It is cultivated in people who hold their treatment of and presentation before others to a high standard... for the most part, successfully.
Considered in that light, the adage that comes to mind is "the good men are always taken" rather than "nice guys finish last". A truly nice person, according to the above definition, is the seldom found individual who treats others decently because of an inner quality, rather than outside influences. People of this sort are so rare because it is far easier to adapt than to live on your own terms. A nice person is defined as a person who IS pleasing and agreeable; not someone who acts pleasing and agreeable for the benefit of certain others.
In the even rarer cases where a person who is extremely charismatic is also nice, you will find people flocking to their side in droves. Simultaneously people will feel a sense of intimidation around them; and, hence, you have the emergence of "the perfect guy" or "the perfect girl". It is pertinent to note that the person in question will almost never think of himself or herself that way. I do not bring up the issue of attractiveness, because it is too subjective... biologically speaking, people have quite a bit of tolerance where physical attractiveness is concerned. Charisma is a more powerful and less random trait.
Why do we occasionally denigrate people by calling them "nice"? One finds that even the positive use of the word is met with negative attitudes -- calling a person "nice" for purely complimentary reasons is nigh impossible. People associate them with a lack of success, with an easily dominated personality, or a tendency to overcompensate for the lack of another sexually desirable characteristic. However, strictly speaking, that doesn't fall in with what "nice" really means. Nowhere in the definition of "nice" is the lack of a spinal column implied.
So what are we talking about, then?
Perhaps it's sensitivity. Let's trot down that path a bit.
sensitive adj 1. Capable of perceiving with a sense or senses. 2. Responsive to external conditions or stimulation. 3. Susceptible to the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others. 4. Quick to take offense; touchy. 5. Easily irritated: sensitive skin. 6. Readily altered by the action of an agent: film that is sensitive to light. 7. Registering very slight difference or changes. Used of an instrument. 8. Fluctuating or tending to fluctuate, as in price. 9. Of or relating to classified information. n 1. A sensitive person. 2. One held to be endowed with psychic or occult powers.
Fascinating. It would appear that while labelling niceness necessarily involves the evaluation of character, sensitivity is character neutral.
Perhaps when the word "nice" is used in negative ways, the user is actually referring to sensitivity. A very sensitive person, strictly defined, could easily be swayed by the actions or attitudes of the people around him or her. He or she would find it easier to be hurt. He or she would be quicker to respond or adapt, to avoid being hurt. These qualities could lend themselves to a lack of strength of character, or other personal problems.
Sensitivity can also aid in the development of empathy with other people or creatures. Remarkably enough, empathy is an extremely powerful tool when dealing with others; you will find that many people who are sensitive yet successful have used empathy as a balance against their weaknesses.
What is extremely important to note here, is that sensitivity and empathy, while often present in people who are compassionate and kind, can also be present in people who are wicked and cruel. There are sensitive members of humanity everywhere. In a sensitive person who possesses little moral sense, empathy can be used in truly horrible ways. The worst enemy is the one who can detect your weaknesses with pincerlike precision. Also, sensitive people are more prone to psychological difficulties; which lead to various forms of antisocial behavior, hyper-aggressiveness, hyper-passivity, etc.
Basically speaking, being sensitive is like having an interesting hair color. It can be good or bad, depending upon a myriad of other factors.
And here we hit the brick wall. When a person is referred to, derisively, as a "nice guy" or "nice girl", it is usually their sensitivity that is being referred to. The mild or overt defensiveness, the lack of self-confidence or other personal problems that make potential sexual partners shudder away, are all associated with the trait of sensitivity. SIMULTANEOUSLY, the perceptiveness, emotional texture, depth and passion that are also associated with sensitivity, will cause potential sexual partners (particularly women) to keel over in ecstacy. Note: perceptiveness, emotional texture, depth, and passion can all be primarily beneficial or primarily destructive traits. Frequently that distinction is not made.
So you have girls falling all over the thug who, though vicious, seems "so exciting"; or over the manic-depressive artist who, though self-centered and sadistic, seems "so passionate"; etc., etc., etc. The same girls will claim that they like "nice guys", without having identified the fact that it is the sensitive traits that they really like -- and that those traits can be found in assholes as well as saints. There is even a self-deprecating aspect to the behavior. After all, a sensitive person who is also truly nice is more intimidating for their very sanity and stability. The woman who doesn't feel "perfect" seeks out an imperfect person who is also sensitive (she will call it "nice") enough to understand her. And the surrounding men see her saying one thing, and doing what seems the opposite.
Then there are men, about whom I admit to nothing better than wild conjecture... but men seem to have bought into the sensitive = nice image, as well. A "nice girl" is seen as dull, barely attractive, or else attractive but held at a distance. To some men, this is reassuring (just as some women will always go for "unthreatening" men for comfort reasons); to others, it is equivalently frightening. In fact, when many people refer to "nice girls", they are actually talking about passivity. Niceness, while not completely exclusive of passivity, certainly is not very closely related to it. The more modern idea of the "nice girl" involves a sort of mud-and-plaster shell of femaleness centered about a warm, caring, sufficiently passive personality. Certainly those things are "nice", but niceness is not limited to them. So you have men who deliberately either avoid or else seek out aggressive women, and then refer to the remaining women (negatively or praisingly) as "nice". And a lot of confused, resentful women.
Because the members of each sex define "nice" in one way for their mates, and another way for themselves. That's two groups of people, each with two disparate ideas, and then you fall into the minor inflections of the concept held by individuals. We're left with four definitions of "niceness" between each potential man-woman pair. And most of the time, none of those are correct.
Tangent: whenever a very attractive man or woman is also described as "nice", the two aspects of personality are often separated by a slightly incredulous beat of silence. This is nothing more than biologically-stimulated bigotry. Attractiveness in members of your sexual class sparks feelings of competitiveness in all but the most unself-conscious of people. In order to feel ahead, one has to emphasize the traits in his or her own character that compensate for the (perceived) lack of attractiveness; then, rather than conceding the advantage of another person and getting on with life, one casts the very idea of physical attractiveness in an unsavory light.
It's certainly true that physical beauty is transitory, but that's no reason to think less of it. Some of the most beautiful personal traits of humanity (innocence is one) are fleeting and hence scoffed at, but that does not make them worthless, any more than it makes them worthy of deification. Beauty is only skin-deep; it does not limit or prevent interior niceness.
Conclusion: many men and women claim to be looking for "nice" members of the opposite sex. Within that group, some of them are indeed looking for people who have cultivated niceness, but a large number of them are looking for a distinct group of personality traits that they mistakenly refer to as "niceness". Within the latter group of those, many are actually looking for people who do not fit the definition. But since everyone defines it slightly differently, and nobody can be all of those things, the sexes whirl about in a storm of wondering "what on earth do they want from me?"
And in the meantime, a perfectly good word for a perfectly pleasant trait is being torn to shreds, molested, and otherwise abused.
I will close by saying this: I have just done my part to add to the confusion surrounding the word "nice". Add yet another definition to the 5 billion others already in existence.