Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Inequality of Nice

"And this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word." -Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

In two consecutive tutorials last week I encountered the word “nice” being used to justify a decision about the presentation of artworks for exhibition. Should I have been surprised that two final year students should feel so comfortable using such an unqualified term during a tutorial? At one point, I asked one of the students to substitute the word “appropriate” as a means of highlighting the issue. At least when you use the word “appropriate” you have to think about how something is appropriate: appropriate to what?

If we wish to talk about artworks in anything other than the most superficial terms then the word nice has very little to offer. Nice is a nice word, which is another way of saying that it signifies absolutely nothing other than vague approval based upon no other criteria than gentility and convention. Nice demands no explanation. Nice is good and not nice is bad. According to many people, swearing is bad because it's “just not nice”.

Now, I’m all for people being nice and I'm all for nice weather, nice company, nice conversation, nice food and nice wine. But at some point, when we're wanting to understand a little more about what we do and like, we have to begin to think about our criteria a little more deeply.

Recently I've been thinking quite a lot about the issue of swearing and the extent to which our attitudes towards the use of expletives are often predicated upon contextual usage rather than simply meaning. Nice may not be a swearword exactly but its meaning is no less dependent upon user and context (and therefore it can actually be mildly offensive if used inappropriately, as Jane Austen was clearly aware). My nice is not your nice, but we have a tendency to use the term as if we had a shared understanding and agreement about its meaning.

It might be worthwhile to consider the idea of connoisseurship in this context. I have some serious reservations about the idea of connoisseurship because I think it tends towards exclusivity and critical stasis, however I'd be very wary about telling a wine connoisseur that they can pick up a nice bottle of Rioja from Asda for £3.99. My nice isn't their nice, but I'd certainly be keen to test their nice and to know the criteria they were using to form their opinion, and in the process, I’d hope to refine my own version of nice. The point is an important one I think, because it goes some way to explaining an unavoidable inequality in the way that experts and novices use commonplace language in relation to their specialist field. If a wine connoisseur tells you that your local supermarket is selling a nice Rioja for £3.99, it's probably worth a trip to buy a whole case.


Seán said...

"Nice" may be more offensive than mere damning with faint praise - its original meaning in English was "stupid". I use it in this sense myself when I'm feeling tactful- not very often then...

J. Hamlyn said...

True, 'nice' has certainly had checkered history being derived from a Roman word meaning 'ignorant'.

Gediminas Jakovickas said...

I believe the word 'Nice' is a very personal one and the meaning varies from person to person. My personal definition of 'Nice' is a very content feeling and satisfaction of something that requires little thought and need for further explanation or expression. I do also see how it can be taken offensive and can end a critique of ones work very quickly and leave the student wanting more clarification if one is to say their work is 'Nice'.

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