Be nice…

15 Mar

When asked recntly why he did not ‘blog’ any more and contrbuted rarely to newspapers or magazines, Stephen Fry admitted that he was, ‘Tired of slagging people off.’ Tweeting allowed regular daily mini-comments of an uplifting, congratulatory nature and even the odd disapproving or  disappointed opinion didn’t need to extend to a vituperative, mean-spirited, extended essay. Journalism, he said, had become a profession where too many of its number made their livings from being nasty.

Most schoolchildren will (or should) have been chided by English teachers for using this bland adjective for a multitude of descriptions. It’s unspecific, vague, unimaginative, too easy….and yet the ubiquity of ‘nice’ remains: have a nice day; nice work if you can get it; nice one Cyril; naughty but nice; nice and warm in here; a nice distinction. Dictionaries emphasise the amiable and kind-heartedness implicit in the word. Nice once meant fastidious or scrupulous. I’m beginning to warm to this bland word and want to push it rather higher in our etymological estimation.

When we call someone a nice person we mean a good deal more than saying It’s a nice day, don’t we? We imply that we know the individual well-enough to make a judgement about how he/she treats others and his/her general disposition. Kindness is involved as well as demeanour. Well that’s quite subtle isn’t it? And we make these judgements dozens of times a day: in the workplace; with relatives and friends; in the home; at the corner shop; in pubs and clubs; travelling wherever and whenever. Our radar is ever up for mean-spiritedness or rudeness, irritability and intolerance; kindness and sensitivity; warmth and caring. Mothers berating children in high streets; husbands sniping at wives in Tesco; children texting or facebooking unpleasantnesses; colleagues demeaning others at work – power games being played everywhere. Many rise above the competitive nastiness which is brought out by bringing an unfeeling response or tetchy personality to the surface under stress. Empathy – or lack of it – is bandied about and the resultant need to train our youth in emotional intelligence. Well I’m sceptical about trying to drill feelings into children. The home atmosphere, learning from how you are treated, observing how your nearest and dearest treat others, must be the greatest factor in our ‘nice’ learning curve.

We can all call up scary relatives from our childhood whom we categorised as odd or nice. Thousands of school interactions educated us further – and often the hard way. And then the workplace where we thought that the adult world would put to one side the bitchiness of childish things – but no! It’s a shock to find that one-upmanship, prejudices, power struggles, bullying and the rest are alive and kicking in many workplaces up and down the land. Whatever has been said convincingly at interview can be replaced by bigotry. People can be snide, deceitful, conniving…just like at school really.

So when we encounter niceness, it’s so nice! I have been lucky to meet so many down the years who say positive things about colleagues, see the best in people, have a genuine diplomatic reserve, volunteer, are genuinely pleased with the success of others, readily get their wallets out when grumpy John retires after 40 years with the firm…and so the niceness goes on. I know what Stephen Fry meant when he talked of the default position of journalists, bloggers and media people being critical, sniping. I wouldn’t want to take all journos to task for it is in the workplace that we could make so much better progress. Economic pressures and performance obsessions mean that the modern office, factory, bank, school, hospital, restaurant etc are pressurised competitive environments like never before. Precisely the reason why niceness should be high on all of our agendas.

Nice can mean saying hello to your cleaner – knowing his/her name, even Christmas carding. Niceness can mean chivvying, supporting, listening to an underperformer who probably knows what he/she is lacking but is hard-pressed to turn things round. Difficult choices don’t mean that niceness has to go by the board. Nice can mean firm, straightforward, honest, consistent, untemperamental, just, fair..but to be all these things the nice person needs a broad perspective, a view that suggests we are all in this together and our lives should not be circumscribed by the pressure brought on by unthinking and cruel individuals.

I have been privileged to know and work with vast numbers who fit into this ‘broad perspective’ niceness category. Just a few – and some of them in undeserved high places – have needed a big Be Nice to Others Post-it slapped on their backs or, better, smuggled into their diaries. Unfortunately such people have built up a lifelong immunity to such advice; skins often get thicker.

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