Tenille Bonoguore is a former journalist and science writer who lives in Waterloo, Ont.
There is sunshine on the horizon, but we are stuck in the mud. A year into Canada’s seemingly endless, befuddled response to the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to pummel our lives, livelihoods and morale. It’s tempting to go looking for the culprits that led us to this place. As we stare down a third wave, my hunt keeps circling back to what Canadians consider our greatest strength, but what I’m beginning to suspect is our deepest flaw: niceness.
We pride ourselves on being nice. It’s our global brand. We stitch it on shirts, sell it in ads, tell ourselves this is who we are. And largely, we’re right – Canadians are nice. But I think we’re selling ourselves short. “Nice” is a trap, and we need to get out.
Nice doesn’t want to upset nor offend. It tries to keep everyone happy. It is polite, sweet, often generous. It avoids causing offence. It is quite lovely because it tries hard to be. But it is all veneer.
With COVID-19, Canada has shown us exactly what “nice” means – and it is costing lives. Despite stern words from political leaders, the actions taken in much of Canada have strived for an impossible middle ground that keeps everyone happy.
When Ontario, where I live, enacted its most recent state of emergency, the list of “essential” businesses was so long that it seemed almost everything could remain open. People were asked to stay home, but could go out for essentials, and they could decide for themselves what “essential” means. Oh, and enforcement varied from place to place, and rule to rule.
But was it kind? Did it take into account the people who work at those stores, risking exposure to keep the economy going? Did it protect the elderly and most vulnerable?
Was this past year of muddled confusion better than a short, swift – and hard – enforced closing that could have slowed COVID-19 enough that contact tracing could actually have a chance to work?
No, it wasn’t – and this is the lesson for us all.
Niceness and kindness can wear the same face. More often than not, the kind option is also the nice one. But sometimes – usually at critical junctures – the two diverge because, despite many overlapping features, they are not the same thing.
Niceness is a façade. It is reactive and situational, based on external validation. It worries about what others think, weighing the odds and choosing the path that will get the best response. It is immediate and impulsive. It aims to please – or worse, to appease. It is morally and ethically malleable.
Kindness, by contrast, comes from within. It strives for decency and fairness. It requires wisdom, strength and a continuing assessment of our own biases and assumptions. Radical kindness has honesty and understanding at its core. It asks questions instead of assuming answers, seeking to understand rather than dictate.
This isn’t the flippant kindness sequined onto throw pillows or the gentle kindness of children’s books. This is a thornier type of kindness, one that weighs heavy on those who choose to embrace it.
It understands that pleasing one often means displeasing another – so, knowing that it cannot please everyone, it doesn’t seek to do so. This kindness takes the long view and tries to discern the best – or least worst – option.
It requires context, nuance and humility: Times change, thus kindness must evolve along with society. It is in constant engagement with the present in an effort to make a better future.
Kindness can also come with jagged edges. It grapples with reality in all its difficulty. And unlike “nice,” which aims to placate without ever implicating, it understands that life has real consequences that are inevitably borne by someone.
Case in point: Alberta. The Trudeau government swept into power with promises of a greener future. Since then, the federal government has talked tough but played nice, letting an entire province believe it can continue to gorge itself on a natural asset that is dooming the planet to irreversible damage. Heck, every Canadian was forced to join the party when our government bought a freaking pipeline.
This path of niceness means investors keep their dividends rolling in, Albertans don’t pay sales taxes, a fossil-fuel-based work force keeps its jobs (for now) and Canada’s economy remains perched on its dirtiest pillar. But it is predicated upon a willful ignorance of the cost this entails, and the reality that oil is a dying industry.
The kind thing – for Albertans, for Canadians and for future generations of humans whom we hope to leave a liveable planet – is to confront the truth of climate change and move decisively to stop it. The kind thing is to face consequences and then change course.
Imagine what this country could have done if we’d directed the pipeline money into renewable energy projects and retraining for oil-sector workers.
Nice keeps a dying industry on life support. Kind can save a planet.
I know, or have learned, all this in a number of ways. As a child in an often violent home, I learned too young how to ignore my own needs in order to please those around me. In my 20s, “niceness” kept me catering to the needs and whims of others. I was often the life of the party, wielding booze and spontaneity like defensive weapons, but my true self was in the shadows. I spent most of the decade hiding behind a screen of stoicism and denial that I called resilience. Whenever that screen cracked, the despair beyond was cavernous.
My saving grace was my chosen career: journalism. Newsrooms don’t expect niceness from anyone – they are too close to reality to bother with such veneers. Sadly, though, newsrooms never got the memo about kindness, either. I burned out twice before finally stepping away to find something a little more humane.
By my mid-30s, I had married a wonderful man and we had twin daughters whom we adore. But I was struggling with early parenthood, and that meant I was trapped. You see, niceness doesn’t impose upon others, so I had never learned how to ask for help. Niceness is a judgment made by others, so I had spent my life pre-emptively judging my own thoughts, actions and wants. All this left me with a finely honed ability to read the room and an internal arbitrator who never, ever shut up.
Finally, I cracked. With the support of my husband, the breathtaking acceptance of my daughters and the help of a therapist, I finally found my voice. And with it, I told niceness to leave.
Today, I choose kindness instead. It’s a departure that brings its own demands and rewards. As a person, a parent and now a municipal politician, I have found that it is a change with profound implications. I don’t always succeed in my quest to lead with kindness. No human, with all our complexities, honestly could. Real kindness is hard. It’s a goal that requires constant effort. That’s what makes it so worthwhile.
With kindness at our core, we can enter difficult discussions and be prepared to unapologetically make difficult decisions. Not everyone will like it, but embracing kindness means you are forced to be okay with that. “Nice” lets you have candy for dinner. “Kind” brings the toothbrush.
As an Australian who also became a Canadian, I’ve spent the past year living in a kind of split reality. My daily life has been so different from that of my Antipodean family and friends that lately it’s felt like we’re on different planets.
It’s all down to each country’s response to COVID-19. While Canada set vague guidelines and asked – nicely – for people to follow them, Australia cracked down. It set clear expectations and rigid rules, then vigorously enforced them. Indeed, Australian cities have conducted some of the world’s harshest lockdowns. (My relatives in Melbourne – two adults, a teen, a tween, a dog, a cat and two fish in a two-bedroom apartment – have now been through three of them.)
As a result, Australia is one of a handful of countries – alongside New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand and a few others – to have some kind of handle on this awful virus.
A snapshot: On March 17, Canada had recorded 919,239 cases of COVID-19 and 22,554 deaths, for a population of 38 million. At the same time, Australia, with its population of 25.6 million, had recorded 29,166 cases of COVID-19, and 909 deaths.
The Aussie numbers are closer to Manitoba’s than Canada’s.
At first, I took this strong response as a relic of Australia’s penal-colony settler past. Many Australians’ ancestors were prisoners, sure, but many more were bureaucratic rule-enforcers (every jail needs jailers, after all) or white folks taking part in Indigenous displacement and genocide in an “empty” land. Despite our free-wheeling reputation, Aussies are really into law and punishment.
Yet the more I think upon it, the more I suspect Australia’s COVID-19 response comes not from some punitive holdover from our past, but from our national myth. Just as Canada sings itself a lullaby of “niceness,” Australian culture is precariously balanced on the hallowed idea of the “fair go.”
The base idea comes from the early union movement and is rooted in egalitarianism: that opportunity is equal, that one person shouldn’t get preferential treatment over another, and that anyone sneaking around to boost their own chances is to be called out for rigging the game against everyone else.
But, just like Canada’s devotion to “nice,” Australia’s relationship with “fair” is a two-headed beast. Because fairness comes with the corollary: fair to whom?
In good times, fairness has led Australia to bad places. It has taken the form of us-and-them nationalism with little room for nuance or empathy. Interactions of all sorts come with an invisible set of scales weighing the outcome: Who got the best deal? This approach turns fairness into a competition in which everyone is judging the outcome, and often finding it wanting. It can shore up the status quo, perpetuate a tyranny of the masses, and – as is playing out right now in a sexual-assault scandal reaching the upper echelons of the Australian Parliament – be used to protect the entrenched elite.
For most Aussies, seeking a “fair go” means seeking it for most people. Taken to its extreme, which a worrying number of Australian politicians seem willing to do, anyone who doesn’t fit in – any minority, really – can be viewed as a problem.
Just ask Indigenous Australians and their allies trying to change the date of Australia Day, currently held on Jan. 26 – the date that white people planted a flag and stole a continent. What is “fair” in that instance? Keeping Australia Day on that date retains support from a lot of the population, so on the prevailing set of scales, the greatest benefit is to stay the course. After all, in that light, it’s not “fair” to make the majority change.
But it’s also clearly not fair to the descendants of genocide to perpetuate an historic atrocity with sausages on the barbie and nationalistic marketing campaigns. In recent years, the weights on that invisible scale have started to move, pushed by a willingness for a growing portion of non-Indigenous Australia to enter difficult discussions.
If we move the analysis to kind instead of fair, however, the question of Australia Day becomes a lot easier. Is it kind to Australians as a people – and Indigenous Australians in particular – to maintain that date and keep jabbing at a wound that cannot heal? No. The kind option to all involved is to grapple with the past and create a new path forward by changing the date – and perhaps turn Jan. 26 into a day of recognition and mourning. We can take the nationalistic rhetoric and trade it for empathy. This is the potential of kindness.
There is a good side to the Australian “fair go,” though. In times of crisis, this attitude is magic to behold. After Brisbane was deluged by record flooding in 2011, ordinary people turned out en masse to clean up. Those who couldn’t head out with a mop and bucket arranged barbecues for the volunteers. One in, all in.
The same thing is happening during the pandemic. Australia essentially stopped COVID-19, and has kept rates so low during periodic resurgences that contact tracing can actually work. Heck, they even managed to hold the Australian Open tennis tournament last month, albeit not without some problems.
How? By pursuing the greater good through the broadest assessment of “fair go.” After all, which is more fair: To allow people to risk each other’s health, or to set strict rules that limit freedom but enforce widespread protection? Do you leave shops open and ask people not to go, or do you close it all and give people nowhere to go?
If your goal is to please the most people, you will choose the first options. If your goal is to actually stop a virus and save lives, it’s the latter tough-love options that win.
This will displease people. Victoria’s Premier, Dan Andrews, suffered withering attacks from the Rupert Murdoch-owned local press during Melbourne’s toughest lockdown. Despite the media onslaught, the numbers won the day – both in COVID-19 data and in Mr. Andrews’s approval ratings.
What might surprise people who haven’t been exposed to Australia, however, is how thoroughly people have accepted and abided by the tight rules. Why? Because by focusing on “fair” rather than “nice,” they could see their own role in the greater good. When Aussies caught others breaking the rules, the vilification was swift, both in person and in the media. Yes, there were concerning undertones of mob justice and a resonance of the “us-versus-them” rhetoric that is the dark underbelly of “fair,” but it also provided a very real demonstration of public unity. If we’re all making sacrifices, they seemed to say, so should you.
When you look at Canada’s and Australia’s responses through the lenses of “nice” versus “fair,” it becomes much easier to see how two countries of such similar size, scope and history could end up on such divergent paths.
But I suspect there is a third way – this is where kindness can come in.
Kindness forces you to relinquish control over what others think of you. It forces you to act in ways that are good – rather than in ways you suspect will look good. Kindness combines the emotions inherent to “nice” with the balance required of “fair.” It is the option of adults who have grown beyond trying to please everyone, who have left behind the tit-for-tat of childhood and the insecurity of adolescence. Kindness sees life for all its beauty and difficulty, and doesn’t shy away.
That’s not to say it should be our only response. There is a place for wild enthusiasm, for deep rage. Our emotional arsenal must run as deep as our humanity. But if you’re looking for a touchstone to ground it all, kindness is a worthy contender.
Kindness can be radical. It requires deep empathy and a willingness to make sacrifices. It speaks honestly about difficult things, and is open to difficult things said by others. It helps people understand not just why sacrifices need to be made, but what we’ll gain by making them.
There’s another, more personal reason I have sought to banish “nice” from my home – rather, two reasons: my twin daughters.
Girls and women bear a particularly heavy burden from the requirements of “nice.” It’s an expectation that forces half the population to blunt their jagged edges, to paste on a smile, to hold everyone else together regardless of the personal sacrifice that duty requires. To that, I say: no more. Men are strong enough to carry their own burdens. Women must stop reflexively picking up that task. We must embrace kindness so that we can apply it to ourselves and to each other.
When our girls sit at the dinner table and recount a schoolyard challenge, or struggle to navigate a sibling squabble; when our annual Christmas Eve sleepover with their big brothers gets cancelled because we are all, once again, in lockdown; when one sister’s need for a hug crunches up against the other’s need for personal space, my husband and I try to parse it all in terms of kindness, understanding, generosity, compromise and sacrifice.
And then we encourage them to keep choosing “kind.” It’s the harder option, we know. Kindness requires honesty, with yourself and with others, and that level of honesty takes a shuddering amount of courage. But with practise, I hope that this response – the one that comes from empathy and understanding, from awareness of the greater good and the willingness to make sacrifices for it, from knowing themselves so well that they are able to stand strong in the face of buffeting pressure – becomes their default.
Don’t get me wrong: Niceness and fairness have a place. They serve as social lubricants, greasing the wheels of communal life, and often provide an easy option in low-stakes situations. When niceness, fairness and kindness align, they provide a clear path forward.
But we must remain alert to the moments they diverge. When that happens, we must learn to turn away from the ego-maintenance of “nice” and the judgment of “fair,” and instead start walking the more arduous path of kindness.
“Nice” has brought us a long way, but “kind” could take us farther. By embracing it, we can all step out of our own shadows and walk into the light.