ERROL CASTENS: Say anything but ‘nice’

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Brant is usually a nice enough man, but he was perturbed as he joined the Coffee Clutchers out on the porch at Arthur’s.
“I’m tired of ‘nice,’” he stated.
“Nine times out of ten, ‘nice’ is the most useless word in the English language.”
He’d called several references about a fellow he was contemplating as a new hire.
“Oh, he’s nice,” one former employer had said.
“He’s a nice man,” a college classmate had echoed.
“I don’t know him that well, but he seems nice enough,” a man who worked with the prospect had said.
Brant had tried to press each for more specific answers, but none of the three could seem to get much past their one-word characterization.
As we sat on the Useless Bench (which refers to its occupants, not its structure), he noted “nice” is a plain-vanilla term that could be replaced by a hundred more descriptive ones.
“A man may be courteous, cordial, polite, gracious. He may be sympathetic, generous, helpful, self-effacing, even self-sacrificing,” Brant said.
“He’s cheerful, friendly – jovial or jolly, even. Maybe he’s eager, enthusiastic, delightful, humorous, thoughtful.
“Every one of those terms is truly descriptive, but saying he’s ‘nice’ doesn’t convey any useful information at all,” he continued.
“How many times have you heard neighbors say of someone involved in a heinous crime, ‘I can’t believe it; he seemed so nice’?”
Peter added his two cents’ worth.
“I had a similar response once when I interviewed for a job in another town,” he said.
“Before I committed, I wanted to know what the community was like, but most of the answers I got from the residents included ‘nice.’
“I never figured whether in their minds ‘nice’ meant the temperature stayed between 55 and 80, or if the people always wore their Sunday best, if all the kids said ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir,’ if crime rates were low or if block parties were a weekly event,” Peter said.
“Maybe it meant everybody got along or that the town had lots of interesting events. But it could have just as well meant high taxes and even higher regulations to impose the aesthetic will of a dictatorial handful on everyone, or a town so barren that ‘nice’ was the ‘nicest’ thing anyone could think of to say about it.”
Clyde chimed in.
“And even the way you say ‘nice’ can imply a drastically different message,” he said.
“Saying ‘She’s a NICE girl’ is 180 degrees from a lustful ‘Mmmmhmmm, she’s NIIIIIIICE.’”
Bud interrupted the flow of the discussion.
“Y’all are making mountains out of moldy hulls,” he said.
“Mama always said, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.’”
Properly rebuked but unrepentant, we hushed.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford-based reporter ERROL CASTENS at errol.castens@journalinc.com.