“He continues, “As surely as Indians gave the world
corn and tobacco and potatoes, they gave it a revolutionary new idea of
what a human being could be. Thanks to Indians we learned that we didn’t
have to kneel to George III. ... Americans today ... work ...in the newly
risen service economy. That means most of us make our living by being nice.”
Frazier sees this niceness as craven, a return to a society based on servility”
Scott L. Malcomson reviewing Ian Frazier’s “On The Rez” (Farrar, Straus
& Giroux) in the January 31, 2000 New Yorker magazine.
Deep feelings well up inside me when ever I enter a successful company’s
edifice. The gilt and the glamour are not always overstated. Some of these
lobbies seem as welcoming as any middle class entry hall. I imagine a successful
social engineering experiment inside, a community transcending most of
society’s ills. Poverty doesn’t loom. Self-esteem is assured around such
obvious success. It’s as if each lobby has a understated sign that says,
“Welcome to Niceville, a successfully planned community and a terrific
place to live!”
These feelings always confuse me. I first interpret them as the normal
response of anyone coming from another culture: nervous, excited, and a
little intimidated. There is a touch of paranoia there, too, as if I have
something to hide. It feels like I am in danger of being “found out”. After
all, my life couldn’t be as nice as the one these people have. Could it?
Other feelings whisper to me that I am in even greater danger of giving
away something terribly important.
I usually find inside these organizations a society ruled by as insidious
an enemy as any terrorist. What could bully these people? Niceness! These
people are literally nicing themselves to death. Losing your cool is a
capital offense. If we are all each other’s customer, we are also each
other’s servants, under constant scrutiny by someone who’s perception,
by definition, is always right. This makes everyone a master but, more
definingly, also a slave! Gutlessness is the inevitable effect of this
forced servility. My default response in these conditions is to simply
hide myself. If I’m not careful, I become nice, avoiding offending my constant
When I force whatever I’m doing through a niceness filter, my actions
lose their spine. I am left tottering toothlesss into the relationship,
stealing from myself what I fear might be discovered, and robbed, by someone
else. I become an bad actor in a lousy role, hiding my humanity behind
a transparently banal mask. This is a dandy tangle.
Owning my own business is no antidote. I can walk away from any client,
but I cannot walk away from all of them. Sometimes clients hire me because
I rattle their cages. But rattling changes nothing. These clients make
appreciative associates, but what results from these engagements? If the
problem is niceness but the resolution must also be nice, nothing can result
except more of the same after a remarkably short period of hopefulness.
There is a period at the start of every project where the participants
are checking each other out. An ex-partner used to refer to this time as
the Nice-Nice Period. During the Nice-Nice Period, people superficially
engage. There are no disagreements and few definite agreements. You might
hear, “I don’t care, what do you want?” as issues are discussed. Everything
stays buried beneath a seemingly tranquil surface. Opinions are mild and
perspectives seem aligned. Progress seems certain, yet not much progress
Then some magical, inconveniencing point occurs where conflict becomes
unavoidable. Someone’s patience wears out. Someone else blurts an unthinkable
something. I call this a magical point because at this point, where the
nice-ness wears so thin it breaks through, progress begins.
Civility might be the enemy of true progress. We can retrace well worn
paths in relative comfort, but we cannot comfortably blaze trails. Blazing
trails is not nice nice work.
I’m not arguing for brutality. I’m arguing against the expectation of
neatness. Tidiness buys the blazer nothing but unnecessary effort sweeping
up what should probably be simply abandoned. Service is sometimes best
delivered with something other than a smile.
There are a thousand ways to delight your customer besides shining their
proverbial shoes. Up off your knees, folks. Time to get real.
David A. Schmaltz