Here’s they’re almost interchangeable, but mostly positive. Saying something is “quite nice” in the US is a little better than saying simply “nice,” I think, and means about the same as “rather nice.”
But I think I remember one or both words having a different connotation in England. An English colleague just sent me a gift (a book in which she had a chapter) and I’d like to thank her but not insult her in the process. If I say the book and her chapter were “well done” or “rather well done” or “quite well done,” is any of them more complimentary than the others?
If you want to really compliment her, be specific: “It’s quite something - I particularly liked the bit about how everything wrong with Western notions of masculinity can be traced to Homer’s portrayal of Achillles” [or whatever]. Any brief phrase can be misunderstood, but something that shows genuine appreciation can’t go wrong.
Not the question you’re asking, but as you used “nice” as part of your example…for the past decade or so, I’ve been friends with a couple who were originally from Ireland (though the husband of the couple is English, his family having relocated to Ireland when he was young).
From them, I learned that “nice,” in the context of when they were growing up in England and Ireland, is not nearly as positive a statement as it is in the U.S. For them, “nice” is what you say when you feel that you have to be politic or kind in what you say about something or someone, but that it’s not particularly special – it seems to be effectively similar to “it’s OK” or “it’s all right” in American terms.
I learned this when the wife of the couple, who is a web designer, asked me to critique a website she had developed – I said “it’s really nice,” and she was disappointed, fearing that I didn’t really like it.
To this American, “quite” is always some sort emphasis. But “rather” always has some sort of contrariness to it, such as in “I would like a burger, but he would rather have a hot dog.” So I can easily see how “That’s rather nice” could mean “That truly is nice, and I’m surprised to admit it!”
Yeah, ‘nice’ pretty much means ‘I need to say something faintly positive about this really average piece of work/home cooked food/outfit’. Expect the reaction to be along the lines of ‘Nice? Nice?! What the f does that mean?’ If you do actually approve of something, just say ‘it’s great’.
See also ‘quaint’ and ‘cute’ - there’s no greater insult an American can give a Brit about their house or home town, these sound seriously condescending.
‘Quite well done’ is naturally followed mentally with ‘could do better’. Damning with faint praise. ‘Rather well done’ doesn’t sound a whole lot better TBH, unless you were in conversation and put extra stress on ‘rather’, although it sounds a bit antiquated. In written form, it could come across as a bit meh. ‘Really well done’ would be unambiguous.
I think it is because not only is “quite” a pretty vague intensifier to begin with, in British English it seems to be a vague deintensifier as well, so it’s sort of a generic modifier without any particular meaning.
That usage must be rare because my only evidence for this is Wiktionary and Medieval2: Total War which was done by a British team, and the fatigue levels of units went like “Fresh – Warmed Up – Quite Tired – Tired – Very Tired – Exhausted.” which confused me for a long time.
Ha! What a great, great show! (Or should I say, “quite good” or maybe "rather good!) It’s one of my recent discoveries in my never-ending quest for great classic British sitcoms. Hyacinth (Patricia Routledge) is fantastic in the role, but so are all the supporting cast, too. Even Onslow’s dog is a star! Unusual to see Onslow (in that still) wearing anything other than an undershirt, but at least the undershirt is hanging out.
The show ran for five brilliant seasons, and ended only because Routledge wanted to move on to other things, and she was so central to the show that it was impossible to continue without her.
It’s one of those things that’s really context dependent, and can depend greatly on tone.
For me, ‘good’ would definitely be better than ‘quite good’. ‘Quite good’ isn’t really praise, it just means ‘not actively bad’.
‘Rather good’ would depend on intonation; it could be worse than good or surprisingly good. ‘Really rather good’ means better than good, but can imply you were not expecting it to be good.
On the other hand, ‘quite something’ is much better than good- while ‘something’ is extremely vague, possibly insulting- and ‘rather special’ would be better than special. ‘Quite excellent’ is serious praise, though it does sound a bit like a retired professor.
‘Nice’ is bare minimum praise, ‘quite nice’ isn’t even that; it’s suited to something like a weirdly flavoured cake someone gave you to try that you were expecting to be awful, but was actually OK.
Brit here, and I find that confusing too. Like if I saw a bunch of units marked “Tired”, “Very Tired” and “Quite Tired” I would have no idea how to rank them (well, “Very Tired” is clearly worse than “Tired”, but “Quite Tired” could fit in any one of three gaps).
Quite used to mean (in British English) “absolutely, to the fullest extent, utterly”. You can see this in older novels, with characters who wish to double-check something asking people “Are you quite sure the duchess saw nothing?” They’re not asking “Are you somewhat or partially sure?” They want complete certainty. You would also see it used more rhetorically, as in “If you’re quite finished, we can get on” meaning “If you’ve nothing else to say” (meaning, “Shut up”).
Over time, the meaning has reversed, so that quite usually nowadays mean “somewhat, almost, in part”. As in “I’m quite happy with the new job, but the commute is a bit tough.” I think this came from the use of “not quite” - which initially meant (and can still mean) “very very close” but is also slightly evasive (as in “Have you finished your homework, kiddo?” “Not quite, Dad” - the latter said as kiddo switches off the Xbox and hastily pulls the books out his bag). My guess is that over time this use of “not quite” became understood as “not even close” and this had a knock on effect on “quite” - so that “I’m quite sure” started to mean not, “I’d bet my life on it” but “Probably, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it”.
(ETA, as Mijin says it is somewhat ambiguous now - I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re all OK with that because everybody needs a little ambiguity from time to time)
Phrases like “It was kind of cool, I guess” or “She’s kind of pretty when you get to know her” are definitely in the same sense. But then you get uses of “quite” where I don’t think you could swap in “kind of” like “I was quite upset” or “quite likely” where the meaning is more “just short of absolute” rather than a vague “not a little, not a lot” sense that I get from “kind of”.