What’s The Difference Between A Nice Guy And A Good Guy?

I find that the people I admire most usually have some specific characteristic(s) I’d like to develop myself. For example, I tend to admire people who…

  • Don’t care much what others think of them
  • Are great public speakers
  • Are very competent in business
  • Call people on their bullshit

Let’s focus on that last one for a minute.

I think of someone like Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich. He doesn’t sugarcoat things. If he thinks someone is acting like an idiot, he’ll tell them straight, to their face.

I believe this is the difference between being a nice guy and being a good guy.

  • Nice guys tell people what they want to hear. Good guys tell people what they need to hear.
  • Nice guys seek approval. Good guys seek truth.
  • Nice guys make friends. Good guys make a difference.

For all the progress I’ve made in not caring so much what other people think of me, I still struggle to call people on their bullshit.

This became especially evident recently while I was trying to teach web design to a couple of guys in Nepal. There were many times where it would have been in their best interest for me to be tough and call them on weak excuses for slow progress. But instead of doing that, I often defaulted to nice-guy mode, avoiding short-term pains and thus sacrificing long-term gains.

I realize now that this is something I need to break, this nice-guy habit. I don’t believe it serves me or others very well. Going forward I’ll be making more of a conscious effort to call people on their bullshit.

A likely outcome of doing this is that I’ll sometimes go too far and upset some folks. A lot of people aren’t willing to face their bullshit. Ideally I’d be able to differentiate between those who are and those who aren’t. A more nurturing and supportive approach would be required for the latter.

Quite honestly though, I’d rather surround myself with people who are willing to face their bullshit. Such people are more mature, more interested in improving themselves, more likely to make a positive difference in the world.

Being less of a nice guy and more of a good guy should help me attract those kinds of people while repelling others.

How about you?

Are you a nice guy or a good guy? Do you call people on their bullshit (to their face; commenting anonymously on the Internet doesn’t count)?

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  1. On the one hand, I agree with you that calling people on their bullshit can work in certain situations, but on the other hand, people are people (even mature, self improvement-minded people) and it is generally necessary to be nice to a point or they just won’t take you seriously. I sort of feel as though Simon Cowell from American Idol popularized the idea that straight honesty is always ok no matter how it’s packaged, but Simon Cowell was rude, obnoxious, unhelpful, and not a good guy at all. So yes, help people improve, but a) only if they give some indication that they would appreciate your feedback (you could definitely have corrected people who were trying to learn web design from you) and b) tone, phrasing, and constructivity go a long way. There’s no need to tell people they’re slow/unintelligent/ugly/etc.

    1. I agree completely. I’m not advocating being rude at all. But I do think someone like Simon Cowell helps more people than an outright nice guy who tries never to offend anyone.

      There is definitely a balance to be struck, and I wouldn’t be so outright with someone if I didn’t think they could handle it.

      Thanks for the comment, Jennie.

    2. I didn’t watch that kind of program much but I agree, Simon Cowell is an example of how not to do it. It’s possible to correct people without being horrible.

      Niall I think you are right about this, although maybe one needs to pick the few topics that are most important for that person. I remember you posted ages ago about a guy who would ‘call your bullshit’ on too many things, whether you wanted it or not. Don’t become like that guy!

      1. Good memory! I had that same guy in mind while I was writing this post.

        The thing with him was that I really appreciated him calling me on my bullshit at the start, but then it just became too much. He never gave me a break, always picking on little things even when I was doing big things right.

        I definitely don’t advocate being like that. He wasn’t a good or a nice guy.

        (Here’s the older post you’re referring to, by the way)

  2. Hey for me the fine line comes down to context. I agree that Simon Cowell helped more people than a “nice” guy might and it’s worth noting that the people he helped went into the situation i.e. an audition knowing that they would get feedback and therefore expecting it.

    For me when someone asks my opinion then they will get it straight and I fully respect and expect the same from others. When we risk being rude is when we give our opinion when it hasn’t been asked for, this for me is unsolicited feedback and is not cool. We are each on a journey and it’s important to be respectful of where other people are at on theirs. We can do more harm than good if we jump in when others aren’t ready or willing to accept feedback.

    I still struggle a little with the bashing of “nice guys” I totally think that you can be good/direct and nice. I like to think that I manage both 🙂

    1. Hey Caroline,

      I’m not so sure about the unsolicited feedback thing. There have been plenty of times when people pointed out some weakness of mine when I didn’t ask them to, and often times it upset me, but then after thinking about what they said for a few days I realized they were right and was grateful that they spoke up.

      Of course, there have been other times when I just flat out disagreed with the person and felt disrespected.

      So yeah, it’s a fine line. I guess it’s impossible to know with 100% certainty how someone will react to you calling them out. You could end up the hero or the villain in their eyes, regardless of your intention.

  3. I found this post to be quite interesting, but it left me with a question.

    Do you think there’s an appropriate time to be a nice guy and an appropriate time to be a good guy?

    I tend to think that nothing is ever absolute, and certainly there’s a time to tell someone that they’re fooling themselves when it really is to their detriment (ex. this person is screwing up their relationships/hurting themselves in some way), but there are also times when the person’s bullshit is really adding to their enjoyment of life (ex. someone feeling like they’re a good guitar player even though they’re terrible, or someone who is proud of their terrible paintings.)

    I think it would be easy to be a good guy at the wrong time and really remove some modicum of joy from someone’s life that they may never fully recoup if what you think they need to hear is truly unnecessary.

    What do you think?

    1. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, Charlie. Calling someone out on their bullshit when that bullshit isn’t doing any harm… well, I think that’s pretty pointless, and quite possible mean.

      The “calling out” I advocate is when you see someone lying to themselves or being oblivious to something and suffering needlessly as a result.

  4. I come up against this conflict in my day-to-day, and it it amazes me the number of people that fail to even see the possibility (or need) of being the “good guy”. By trade, as a business case analyst, it is my job to be the “good guy” and it often breeds resentment even among the service recipients (e.g. customers).

    To address the issue of appropriateness brought up by Charlie’s comment, I think it is purely a function of your personal values. My personal mission involves helping people and organizations be better, and it does not work to be tell people what they want to hear if it is not what they need to hear to be better. Fortunately, I care only what a few key people in my life think, so being a “good guy” 99.9% of the time works for me.

    Which brings me to the integrating the four characteristics mentioned at the top of the post. The very first one is absolutely critical to being able to call people on their BS; if you are more concerned about people feeling better versus people being better, this is not the path for you.

    Good luck getting to Sri Lanka!

    1. Philip, you wrote: “if you are more concerned about people feeling better versus people being better, this is not the path for you.” That’s a very concrete and excellent way to put it. Thanks!

  5. Very interesting question. For one thing, I have to agree with Charlie that there may be a space to allow nice guy to peek out (you point out yourself you may go too far with being straightforward). But how much and when?

    In my family of origin for example my father would let anybody outside the family walk all over him and his opinions, and conversely would very rarely if ever show approval or even acknowledge any discussion or even meritorious actions inside the family, no matter what. (Also read: nice guy can easily become “very frustrated guy” and take it out on the most innocent ones).

    Of course it was very difficult growing near him, I was very insecure in a lot of ways and I picked up a just slightly better variation of the same defect – which kept me in a sort of big disconnect from the most important people in my life (my family, my girlfriends and even some of my closest friends) for a very long time.

    At some point I did wake up from this bad dream, and I started to look for a nice way to be a good guy, a balance. My life changed for the better then, and this process helped my father set himself free from it too.

    In many ways I am still learning, but I think I figured out two principles that always work for me. They are purposefully kept generic:

    1) Be the nice guy whenever feelings matter most.
    2) Be the good guy whenever results matter most.

    If they sound obvious to you, you can consider yourself lucky.


  6. Above all, Thanks, Niall – your stuff just helps to focus on the constructive site of life.

    I’m absolutely convinced that always being nice isn’t that nice in the end. Agreeing with former comments, though – it’s a matter of how and when. I rarely comment on less important “bullshit” like a dress someone definetely shouldn’t wear (except I’m asked for my opinion).
    As for art or the like, I do tell people what I think, trying my best to keep it positive.

    But here is a really important area for “being good”:
    I experienced that sometimes some straight words can safe a friendship. More than once people were even thankful that I told them that they’d crossed a line here. Naturally it’s quite important to find the right way to put it. And the right moment, when you’re not bursting with anger, for example…
    Problem there is the struggle to overcome the values that I’ve been raised with – care for others, do not care for yourself, protect everyone from your feelings and, even better, from the evil world out there->be nice.
    So I often end up telling the truth very late when it comes to interpersonal stuff. Would save a lot of sorrow to be, like, nicely good sooner.

    PS: it’s not only about telling others on their bullshit – straightforwardness is also for telling what they’re good at. And I like to pay people compliments out of the blue. Works perfectly with strangers, too.

    1. Great points, Stine. I think being timely with speaking your mind is key. A friend of mine is really quick to call someone out if they overstep the line, and he gets a lot of respect for that.

      Also love that you mention speaking up and letting people know what they’re doing well. That’s huge.

  7. Wow dude, real solid and short post, I dig it! Such a solid recognition that those who aren’t willing to be called on their bullshit aren’t willing to go deep and are not interested in working on themselves.

    I hear you on the challenge to be kind and supportive too.. but then again, it’s about creating a circle of alignment.. within our friends, and within our social circles. In physical life, and in digital life.

    Feel free to call me out anytime man. Thanks in advance 🙂

  8. Niall this is a quality and thoughtful post as usual but I’m a bit disappointed that you continue to duck the issue of Muslim extremism. It’s the elephant in the room and if an opinionated atheist such as yourself continues to be cowed that I don’t know who we can expect to speak up.

    1. a) I don’t consider myself an atheist. Atheists know that there’s no such thing as a divine power. I’m not so sure.

      b) There’s a lot more I’d need to read and experience before I could write an informed post on Muslim extremism. Check out Sam Harris if you’re jonesing for such a fix.

  9. Hi Niall, I’m happy you raise that question… I didn’t know I was suffering from what has recently been called “the Nice Guy Syndrome” until a couple of years ago.

    If you want some more insight into it, I highly recommend Dr. Robert A. Glover’s book, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. He lists NG characteristics, explains their various origins and suggests “breaking free” exercises. What you call the Good Guy is what he calls the “integrated male”.

    This book can be particularly interesting if you fear your niceguyness may prevent you from living a fruitful relationship.

  10. I enjoyed this post. I feel like I personally grew up being the nice guy and have grown into being the good guy. I once would say the nicest things possible without being over the top. I didn’t want to come across as a dick or make anybody feel bad. I’ve grown and have begun to notice that extreme sugar coating doesn’t do anybody any good.
    I now, with respect, will be more honest about my true feelings and opinions even if it entails upsetting somebody. I have noticed though, that if done respectfully, people will respect you right back for differing in view points.
    Great post!

  11. It is a very strange question. It is the same if to ask: is the World white or black? Relations between people have much more “colours”. For example, can you always be “a good guy” with your boss? 🙂

  12. I actually googled this question and it’s interesting that you talk about this. I was trying to explain the same thing to my boyfriend…he’s not a nice guy but a good guy. More people need to understand what it means and be good rather than nice. Great post! ^.^

  13. I reckon first work out if ‘their bullshit’ is bullshit only in your opinion. If it is, keep your mouth shut and be good by being nice.

  14. Let me begin by saying it appears to me that you are making a genuine attempt at greater self-awareness and understanding of the human condition. I applaud any such effort. With that said, and with all due respect, I believe you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink this entire argument. Firstly, you make a zero sum argument, but “nice” and “good” are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, there is a huge amount of overlap, especially considering their subjective nature. Secondly, calling someone on their bullshit (or not) has nothing to do with nice and/or good. It simply shows a person’s willingness to put them self into a potentially confrontational situation…which may be a good thing in some cases, but not so much in others. So it logically follows that such a person’s judgement, moral character and tact determine whether that person is some flavor of nice/good, or simply a jerk.

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