I love words. I was an English Major in college, but my love for languages began long before I got an actual degree in one. As soon as I could read, I realized that books opened up entire worlds to me. Adventure was at my fingertips.
Yet the other (and perhaps more important) reason I love words is that there are perfect ones. . . ones that completely encapsulate what we’re trying to express, from intense emotions and complex thoughts, to things that aren’t even realities yet, just theories and dreams. Sometimes we struggle to find the right word, and sometimes we substitute one that’s close, but not the perfect fit. It’s like wearing pants that gap a bit at the waist and are too snug in the thighs, simply because it was the first pair you tried on in the store. It does the job, but it isn’t ideal.
Writing, of course, is the art of finding the proper word, every time. To me, it’s the equivalent of solving a riddle: choose wisely and all becomes clear. Unfortunately, I think we often wield words without the precision they demand and deserve. We seize whatever synonym first comes to mind, rather than seeking an exact match. I had a professor in college who banned us from using the word “interesting.” As she so astutely pointed out, “If something is really that interesting, you should be able to explain why.” Her rule has stuck with me ever since, and when I see what I’ve dubbed “lazy words” in use, I often try to ascertain what the author really meant.
“Nice” is perhaps my most-hated lazy word of all. It’s that word we throw around when we don’t really know what else to say; the weak compliment and generic descriptor suited for all situations. So when I hear the phrase, “nice girls finish last” – an unsolicited bit of advice I’ve been receiving for all my twenty-some years – I often wonder, “do they really mean nice?”
I get the sentiment. “Nice girls finish last” translates to: boring girls don’t get the guy, unassertive girls don’t get the promotion, etc. Certainly, there is some truth to this. It’s difficult to define the line between being diplomatic and being a doormat, but it’s important not to be the latter. Having a personality – opinions, a sense of humor, experiences you’re able to talk about – is definitely more enticing to a potential friend or romantic partner than simply being “nice.” So I understand how this phrase originated. I just don’t think it’s correct.
Frankly, I think the world could use more nice girls (and guys). I don’t think I have a single friend whom I wouldn’t categorize as “nice.” Or better yet, as kind, compassionate, and caring. I like nice people. Sue me.
But I would also call my friends successful, clever, funny, and adventurous. Some are easygoing and some are totally Type A. Some are extroverts, and some would rather stay home with a movie and a glass of wine. Some are terrible drivers, some are great cooks, some are super organized, and some can never, ever remember what day of the week it is.
My point is this: if you’re telling someone that “nice girls finish last,” you aren’t really telling her to stop being nice. If you are, well. . . that’s a whole other dilemma. But if you’re trying to tell her that she should stand up for herself in a certain situation, or that she should aim higher than her current set of goals, or that she shouldn’t bend over backwards to try and accommodate people who will never reciprocate, then that’s exactly what you should say. Advice is great when it’s thoughtfully given, (and asked for), but it’s tremendously unhelpful when it lacks specificity. Use your words carefully. Be precise! Now more than ever, words matter, and being intentional with the words we choose is incredibly important.
Nice girls aren’t going to finish last, because we’re too busy using hundreds of words more meaningful than “nice” in our college applications, work presentations, and campaign speeches. We’ll see you at the finish line. We’ll be the ones reading books.