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.

10 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    [The Power of Nice](http://www.thepowerofnice.com/) has a lot of great stories of genuine niceness and the unanticipated rewards that came from people being nice. Part of the whole point is that niceness cannot be a quid pro quo exchange…it can certainly be self-interested, and it can be planned, but if people doubt your sincerity, they don’t appreciate your nice actions.

    I don’t get why you cite lonelygirl15 as an example here; I thought that was manipulative fraud. How can someone pretend to be lonelygirl15 without misleading people? I don’t know that much about it, but my impression was that the story was about how the fraud was exposed, not how clever the producers were.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    That’s a good point about lonelygirl. What I was thinking, though, is that the person whose job it was to answer the email really had to figure out what mattered to each person who wrote in. And that connection is not fraudulent. Also, I don’t think the audience sees the whole thing as a fraud, because traffic went up, not down, after the lonelygirl scheme was revealed.

  3. melanie
    melanie says:

    Penelope this one comes at such a good time for me! I was just talking to an exec in my office and he described his role model to me. The role model is apparently incredibly rough, rude and forceful. He uses the f-word repeatedly in meetings and attacks people personally in public. He ended up getting managed out of one high-profile, high-powered position because of his overly-aggressive style.

    I left that conversation thinking, “Why would you pick a role model like that…?” To me the role model seems like a bully and not someone you’d want to learn anything from.

    Speaking of that, can you write an article about how to deal with a bully in the workplace? I usually try to reason with them once or twice but if that doesn’t work then I bully them back. It works but I think there must be a better way. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Katie
    Katie says:

    I have to add an addition to the “Be Nice” theme in this blog post to “Be Nice: Use with Caution.” While I agree that being nice and taking that extra step helps business relationships, the connection caused by the nice act can be strained by a flurry of requests that come after the nice act. It is stunning to see how many will go out of there way to be nice, and then have their boss/manager/3rd party load on totally unreasonable requests. Make sure that nice acts are thought out, and when the requests come in to do more than your fair share, make sure you have the proper responses to say “No.” Niceness does have a limit, and like anything else, healthy boundaries have to be set to benefit both parties involved.

    It still hurts to think that because of my nice acts, I’ve been taken advantage of twice. It leaves me jaded and I just wish I had set boundaries to protect myself.

    Note to those who work in nonprofit organizations: Watch out! Nonprofits are especially prone to taking advantage of others because of their nice acts. The Chronicle of Philanthropy continues to run articles about employee/volunteer burnout due to over-reliance on “nice acts.”

    Just be careful.

  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    I think there is a big difference between being “nice” in the sense of agreeing to do a favor for someone at work that you feel leads them to expect more from you versus being empathetic. Many times, being nice just means noticing, listening, observing, and acting like a human being instead of an automaton. Sadly, that alone is often exceptional.

  6. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    For Katie,

    I think there is a difference between being nice, as Penelope describes it and agreeing to take on co-workers tasks when they come begging. Taking on their tasks isn’t necessarily “being nice” — but rather being a team player (ideally) or in a worst case scenario becoming everyone’s door mat (the danger you describe).

    Being nice as Penelope describes it is doing something unexpected. Like seeing your co-worker will be working late on a proposal, perhaps you bring him or her a favorite latte drink, or a snack or meal (that is, not helping them with the work per se — just being supportive in a way that doesn’t involve you doing their tasks).

  7. Suze 100
    Suze 100 says:

    People try to be nice because they want to feel they are liked. Sometimes this involves a false sense of security since if they have to put a foot out of place they play up, its just the image they wish to portray rather than the actual act of being nice.. I call them “fair weather friends”.

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