Jing Li from New Zealand had the following questions:
“In (the TV show) Prison Break in the first season, Michael and Sara had a conversation:
Michael: I thought you were a nice girl.
Sara: Oh Michael, we all know nice girls finish last.
I checked dictionaries and the Internet, and I could not figure out what the “finish last” means. Could you please explain the phrase’s meaning for me?”
The speaker, Sara, is referring to the popular saying: “Nice guys finish last.” She substituted “girls” for “guys.” “Nice guys finish last” means that boys/men who are too timid (shy; without courage) will not get what they want. They have to be a bit aggressive (using attack or confrontation) and courageous (brave) to beat their competitors. The same is true for “nice girls.”
This saying is often used to talk about romantic relationships, where often the men who are aggressive get the girls. This doesn’t mean they have to be “bad boys,” however, to attract girls. Bad boys are those who aren’t nice and polite, and who may not be honest, trustworthy, or treat girls/women very well. The stereotype (too simplistic image or idea) of a bad boy is someone who rides a motorcycle, has a lot of tattoos (permanent ink images on their skin), doesn’t respect authority, and gets into trouble with the law (police). He’s the guy you don’t bring home to meet your mother.
Finishing last, of course, means being in last place in a competition and losing the race. We use this for actual races, for example, where the winner finishes first and others finish second, third…and last; we do the same to describe the game of life.
Note that we say “bad boys” and not “bad guys” to refer to boys/men who are not considered good or polite. “Bad guys” mean something else; it’s another term for villains, who are the people in a story who do bad things and often fight the “good guys,” or the heroes. While bad boys can also be bad guys, these two terms don’t mean the same thing.
When people use the phrase “nice guys finish last,” they are not really speaking about men/people who are nice. Guys who are nice–kind, polite, considerate (thinking of others)–will always finish first in my book (in my opinion). They mean men/people who don’t go after (pursue) what they want–who don’t get up the courage to ask a girl/woman for a date, who allow others to take credit for (have ownership of) their work, who are afraid to speak up for their own views and ideas. These are the guys who will finish last.
Thanks for the question, Jing Li, and I hope this was helpful.