Thursday, May 2, 2013

Learning to be Nice

She was one of those happily created beings who please without effort, make friends everywhere, and take life so gracefully and easily that less fortunate souls are tempted to believe that such are born under a lucky star.
Louisa May Alcott

Or is it luck?...

One of my joys in life, as a middle aged man, is going up to Edmonton, the city I first knew in my sunny youth back when I served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. (At Griesbach Barracks) There I check into a well-known very-cheap hotel for a few days, one with the toilets and showers down the hall: The sort of place where you both pay a key deposit and drop off your key every time you leave the building; a place where some of your poor fellow guests find their lives challenging, and in turn they present challenges to the front desk staff. Of course, they present few problems to a former soldier.

The last time I checked in and trudged up the stairs I overheard the staff going into the back and saying, “…comes up from Calgary, a nice guy.” Given some of the challenges the staff faced, “a nice guy” must have been a nice relief. No wonder the staff always remember me and sometimes tell me what shift they are working.

I started pondering “being nice” a month ago, after my weekly toastmasters meeting. (For public speaking) At my club we always start with a brief “introduction question.” The chairman for the night was a man my age who likes to lead bike tours. He asked us each to think, “What are you known for?” In his case, he was known for biking everywhere, even to work.

That night I answered, “Everyone knows I go to Tim Hortons,” (donut franchise) adding “At the place I go to before work on weekdays, they always bring me a cup one size larger than I pay for; at the place I go to before sunrise on weekends, they often start me off with a free coffee.” When someone said later she wanted to copy my donut shop success I realized that no, she couldn’t. Not unless she was known there for being nice. When once I ran into a couple of young servers at another town, away from their home, they were so pleased to see me, adding that “you are our favorite customer, we like how you leave magazines for us to read.” The magazine idea I learned from my brother Gord.

It was my brother Rob, an owner-operator of a delivery truck, who role modeled for me how a driver could be sociable with customers and loading dock crew. Come to think of it, everyone in my family is social: we’re Irish. (And British)

It’s obvious, surely, that “being sociable” is good for anyone in the business world, not just salespersons. As for traveling salesmen, I am intrigued by how back in the days when they were numerous, known as drummers, they were known for socializing with each other during evenings in the saloon, evenings of rousing good cheer. There was a subtle reason: Being unable to obtain peer status from the size of their houses and possessions back home, drummers earned their group’s respect through their ability to tell jokes and stories, to sing and converse… In more recent times, in contrast, we have that sympathetic Norman Rockwell painting of the lone salesman on his hotel bed playing solitaire.

In my brother’s case, I imagine being social could mean, say, one extra delivery trip per day because the various warehouse crews might be just a little quicker and more efficient for him. On the other hand, I don’t think he would get any free coffee at the docks or donut shops: There is a broad difference between “sociable” and “nice.” The term “sociable,” at first, makes me think narrowly of salesmen, pretty girls and partygoers. “Nice” is for everyone: something shy people and wallflowers could aspire to master. No doubt Simon Peter was loud and sociable—it was his quiet brother Andrew who was nice enough to find the boy with the loaves and fishes.

Can these traits be learned? I would hope so. Role modeling would work best, I think. As for specifically being social, there is lots of instruction available: I often see books and magazine articles such as “How to Talk to Anyone.” As for my concern of the week, ‘learning to be nice,’ I have only seen one book on this common sense trait, but one is all you need: I am thinking of a man who during the Great Depression ran a night school class on public speaking, back when no such book had ever been written: Dale Carnegie. From both his formal research and from his students came the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. If you haven’t read it yet—what are you waiting for?

One scene in the book is instructive. Dale “made the day” of an elevator operator by complimenting the man on his fine head of hair. When Dale reported this to his night class one of Dale’s students asked, “What did you want to get out of him?”

Dale exploded “What did I want to get—! … If your soul is so shriveled—! …” It’s hard to imagine any benefit the elevator operator could confer on Dale. Being nice is not for a clear and immediate gain—Call it a lifestyle choice.

When it comes to “trying too hard,” I think such error is more likely for “being sociable” than for “being nice.” A big difference between the two could be in how you set your intention: One is more ‘what do I want’, one is more ‘how can I help.’ Note the modifier “more.” Motives aren’t pure: We mortals will always have healthy measure of self-interest, more or less. None of us are saints—not me, no sir.

I guess my saintly friend Sue S. had thought she was doing the right thing. I first met Sue in a night class for people who already had jobs but were ready for a career change. (I was military, at the old Currie Barracks here in Calgary) A few years later we reconnected when I joined the university newspaper volunteer staff. Seeing her name and phone number in the staff listing I innocently gave her a call. I got as far as saying, “…Uh…Let’s see, uh—” (“—Hi Sean!”) when she happily guessed whom I was. Looking back, I suppose I was nice enough that she didn’t wonder if I was a stalker. Ah, those eager awkward student days. One day Sue confided to me how she was happy to have a new behavior: No longer was she entering each class after first putting a little smile on her face. I was happy for her.

Down the years I’ve had two other women say, “I’m not nice.” I didn’t get it. I never explored what they meant by that—we weren’t quite nice and intimate enough—but I think now, feminist style, they were rejecting any silly sex-role thing, just like Sue did.

For my part, it feels right to be a nice guy. On my good days, I like how my shyness is reduced. As I said in another essay, (Man and Girl, July 2013) I try to remember my mantra, “Because I am afraid to love, you are alone…” When I’m being less shy, because my mind is on being more helpful, I feel straight and healthy: Living as God intended.

My childhood hero, General Sir Baden-Powell, encouraged his Boy Scouts to do a good turn every day. He once wrote a note for someone as a take away at the end of an interview: (from memory) “Some think the secret of happiness is to receive, others know the secret is to give.” That’s it. An old man once said his secret was he tried to live so that no one came away feeling worse for having met him. That’s it too. Dale Carnegie wrote, “I am talking about a new way of life.” Yes.

It seems to me—Oh, how awful when I lapse into having a “dog in the manger” day! It seems to me, “learning to be nice” is a matter of setting my intention…  Everyone I meet during their working hours is, by definition, only there because they have to be—and I can help ease their path As for the ones who are not at work, well, everyone is fighting a silent battle, without flags or bands—and I can help.

I can extend fellowship, commiserate along the trail, and rejoice with them in pointing out the wonders of the world. It’s too easy for tired hikers to just look down at their feet. I find a side benefit for myself: By having a little focus, a little wondering, about what would brighten someone else’s day… I have to become aware of other people’s concerns… while in turn becoming increasingly aware of what brightens my own day. And awareness steers action.

I’m sure awareness will not automatically seep in, not without intention. I am reminded of a college assignment where we had to write a short piece with dialogue. Believe it or not, even though I had been reading for years, I had to reach under my bed for an old Louis L’Amour so that for the first time I could see how to write dialogue. A classmate, Joan, presumably had no fiction at home: She ended up inventing her own punctuation for dialogue! (Oh, it was crude!) Looking back, I wonder how many of us go through our years without ever setting an intention of seeing the concerns of others, without ever learning how to be nice. The golden rule can only take you as far as your knowledge goes. As Dale Carnegie said, “I am talking about a new way of life.”

I suppose setting one’s intention daily would be matched by checking yourself daily to see how your intention turned out.
Softly falls the light of day,
as the campfire fades away
Silently each Scout should ask,
‘have I done my daily task?’
In time, with concerted effort, a nice habit can become a new way of being… Such a soft, easy path to joy.

Sean Crawford
A civilian on the lone prairie
As robins nestle into shrubbery to escape the constant snowfall
April 2013
~In Calgary only the Burns building, by the Olympic Plaza, still has elevator operators.
~I may have combined two separate Dale Carnegie stories—It’s been a decade since I read him last.

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