By the time you read this column, I hope that you will have recovered from your food hangovers and other consequences of seasonal indulgences. I am writing this in the aftermath of our own Vending Times holiday party, so those consequences are in the forefront of my mind.
More agreeably, I’ve been reflecting on the ability of this time of year to prompt expressions of appreciation and kindness. We tip our doormen, conduct employee “reviews” and send good-natured words and photographs to friends and family. This is very pleasant, and actually something I enjoy about Christmas. But what I want to know is, whatever happened to simply being NICE all year long? Why do we block in a short interval, once a year, to thank our customers for their business, our suppliers for their cooperation and assistance, and our employees for a job well done?
My late father, the former VT publisher who was my boss for more than 16 years, never told me I was doing a good job. He never told anyone else that, either. It wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that I learned how proud he was of me, and saw how he beamed when I would walk into the room. He always said “Alicia, it’s when you’re doing something wrong that you’ll hear from me. Consider your autonomy here a good thing. I hire people who can police themselves.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. My dad was a great boss, and he must have been doing something right because he ran a successful business for over 40 years. His management style certainly got good results, and I think it was fairly widespread among executives of his generation. But it’s always nice to be told directly that your work is exemplary! Perhaps this is why I always make a point of telling people how much I appreciate them – and not just during the holidays.
I was in a restaurant recently, and was listening to a fellow patron abuse her server. She was yelling at him because she wanted a bigger bowl for her soup. Not only did I feel badly for the waiter, but I was embarrassed for the woman because she didn’t seem to know any better. Where were her manners? It’s one thing to treat someone well because he or she is your boss or your customer, but what about exhibiting kindness (or even common decency) just because someone is a human being and – for that reason alone, if for no other – deserves respect?
“Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.” Known in the West as the Golden Rule, the same principle has been discovered by most other societies. Courtesy, kindness, fellow-feeling is contagious. It makes everyone feel better, and it requires almost no effort. “What goes around comes around” holds true for good things, not just bad ones. Case in point: I am very fond of the management and the maintenance staff in the building where VT has its offices. They always greet me with a smile and are kind and helpful; naturally, I extend the same courtesy to them. And so we have developed a good rapport over the years. When it came time to renegotiate our office lease for another term, they were the ones who told me my bottom line and as a result I actually got our rent lowered – unheard of in New York City! I don’t delude myself; if the commercial real estate market had been stronger at the time, I probably would not have done as well. But it does make a difference to be regarded as a good tenant, rather than someone the landlord would rather get rid of.
Being nice is good business sense. It makes a difference to be regarded as a good supplier, a good service provider. Even on the most cynical view, it simply is stupid to insult and attempt to degrade people. If you want them to do something for you, they are much less likely to do it willingly and well if you’re being nasty. Even if you don’t care what they do, it’s worth keeping Machiavelli’s advice in mind – don’t inflict petty injuries on people, because they will look for an opportunity to take revenge. And who needs that?
There is a certain personality that confuses kindness with weakness. There is another personality type that affects to scorn hypocrisy, believes that hypocrisy involves acting as though you are nicer than you really are, and so concludes that true sincerity requires you to be nasty.
In my opinion, this is nonsense, and just causes modern life to be much more stressful than it has to be. Unfortunately, hypocrites have given hypocrisy a bad name: correctly employed, it is an essential social lubricant. I’d contend that acting more civilized than we feel is not evidence of duplicity, but of maturity. And a long, diverse religious tradition insists that we should act correctly, whether we feel like it or not. The idea is that you develop the habit of doing the right thing by doing the right thing consciously, all the time. That’s probably true, but as for me, I try to do the right thing because, after all, I have to live with myself.
People who are contemptuous of niceness often quote legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher to the effect that “nice guys finish last.” But that is not what Durocher said. He said (of a rival team) that the players were all nice guys, but the team was going to finish in last place anyway. He never implied that being nice was why they were going to finish last. He explained this on a number of occasions, but no one wanted to qualify the quotation. I’m arguing here that being nice is necessary, not that it is sufficient. But in my experience, people who really are capable and confident are much less edgy, defensive and nasty than people who aren’t.
Many people who confuse niceness with weakness are looking to take advantage of you, or of anyone they regard as weaker than themselves. In this case, being nice actually gives you the upper hand because those manipulators tend to underestimate your abilities. Another cynical old observation is that you should love your enemies, because it will confuse them thoroughly. And you never know: that soup server may be a close relative of the owner of the prime vending location that you’ve been pursuing for years.