I write a lot about how you have to be liked to get what you want, and how people think they’re more likeable than they are. So I’m always on the lookout for what it really means to be nice, and lately I have been noticing people who are getting to the top of their field by taking nice very seriously: They make it part of their job to figure out ways to be nice.

Being nice means going out of your way to do the unexpected. If you are nice in an expected way, it is common decency. If you are nice in an unexpected way, people notice. This seems fair because to be nice in an unexpected way actually takes a good deal of thought. You have to be very aware of what other people are feeling in order to come up with something customized for them.

For example, a local reporter was trying to hit on an intern, and Barak Obama’s speech cut into the reporter’s plans. The reporter wrote about it, and Obama called him on the phone and said, “I’d like to publicly apologize for messing up your game…” It’s a fun phone call to listen to because it’s so surprising. Being nice is apologizing any time it might make someone feel better, instead of just when you would look terrible not to apologize.

Another example is a popular video blog, lonelygirl15, which looks like a girl in her bedroom posting on YouTube, but it is really an actress in a movie made to look like a girl in a bedroom. The producers of this groundbreaking movie were so conscious of the need to be nice to the audience in order to forge a connection, that Wired reports, they hired someone whose full-time job was to answer peoples’ emails and comments on YouTube.

What is remarkable about the lonelygirl15 example is that the person answering the email had to pretend to be lonelygirl without misleading people. So she didn’t talk about herself. She asked people questions about themselves, and she looked up their pages on MySpace and asked them questions. This drives home the point that when you’re thinking about how to be nice, remember that it’s not about you, it’s about other people.