It’s nice to be nice to the nice

Smiley-FaceIn the television show MASH, if I remember correctly, the feral and fatuous Major Frank Burns defended some bit of unconscionable brown-nosing he had done by saying “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” What a meaningless pile of drivel, right? Or maybe not….

My long-time readers know that I do not believe that people are born naturally nice or good. Indeed I’ve written before about the fact that when Anne Frank, in her last diary entry before being taken to Auschwitz, said that she believes all people are really good at heart, or something like that, she was whistling in the dark. People are not naturally good. They have to be taught to be good.

Fortunately, most people in America are still taught to be good. Indeed, at Disneyland, being good is corporate policy. Whatever else Disney may do in terms of movies and TV shows, it knows how to make sure that Disneyland is always “the happiest place on earth.” The employees smile, they are helpful, the facilities are immaculate, and everything runs very, very well. It is of course a testament to the wonders of the free market, since this is a perfect way both to keep and grow a paying customer base, but that’s not where I’m going in this post.

What I want to talk about is the fact that it is nice to be nice to the nice. What I’ve noticed over the years is that people in the service industries are required to be friendly and polite – whether at Disneyland or Safeway – but that this requirement often means there is an automatic quality to this “niceness.” It lacks heart. “Hi, how are you?”, they ask without really engaging or even caring.

A game I have been playing with myself for some years is to really engage with these same people. When I walk up to a clerk, or a sales associate, or a washroom attendant, I don’t wait for them to paste on the automatic smile. Instead I say with true feeling “Hi, how are you?” I ask in a way that says that I recognize them as people, rather than just objects existing to serve me.

Invariably, the response is a broad smile, a cheerful answer, and an equally genuine request to know how I am doing. And then, if the interaction lasts longer than a few seconds, we often chitchat, about their day, about the work environment, about the weather, etc. Instead of them being my servant, they are real people with whom I engage.

The game element for me is that I challenge myself to make sure that after people interact with me their day is no worse than it was before and, with luck, maybe it’s better. In other words, for me, it is indeed nice to be nice to the nice.

A subset of this approach is my belief that, if you ask the right question, most people have something interesting to say. Once you’ve opened with a real hello, and engage people in conversation, it gets quite easy to elicit from them information that leads to the right question. That is fun too because I Often get unexpected surprises (as when I met a bullrider from Tennessee who came to fix my telephone) and learn interesting new things. Also, I can drop little pearls into the conversation about individual liberty and other subversive thoughts, without people knowing what hit them.

I say all this, not just because I had a good time in Disneyland today or because I want to boast about my people skills, but because I am depressed about the political scene. Given that depression, it is very helpful to me to remind myself that there are a lot of nice and good people in America.