Being Nice (or not)

I had a truly amazing experience this week.  It happened right in front of me in less than a minute and I have been thinking about it ever since.  I was there to buy batteries.  A more complicated sale–the earphones you see on the counter–was going on.  The clerk was explaining–over and over again, using different words each time–how these earphones were going to work once this woman got them home.


I wasn’t doing anything notable.  I was not in a hurry and I was waiting my turn without even fidgeting.  Then this woman turned to me and took a few steps in my direction and said, “When you are old, you have to be nice to people or they won’t like you.”

The event I described, happened.  The photograph is completely untouched.  It is not even cropped, which would make it a better photograph.  Everything else I am going to say is one of two things.  It is a keen observation based on years of careful study of people in interaction with each other or it is sheer fantasy.  I report; you decide. [1]

My impression of this woman is that she is still attractive.  She pays a lot of attention to her appearance.  She has the manner of a woman who has been beautiful all her life.  Or, to say it another way, she has been treated as if she were beautiful all her life.  She has “played the role of a beauty.”  She has expected others to respond to her in that way.

To illustrate what I mean by that, I offer a clip from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (pages 696-7 of the Avon edition).  “Mom” is the mother of one of the principal characters.  Note that what we know about her–this is all family lore–is that “her bearing and appearance” had an instant effect on even very unpromising settings, in this case “a biker bar.”

It had been a standing joke among her male offspring that Mom could walk unescorted into any biker bar in the world and simply by her bearing and appearance cause all ongoing fistfights to be instantly suspended, all grubby elbows to be removed from the bar, postures to straighten, salty language to be choked off. The bikers would climb over one another’s backs to take her coat, pull her chair back, address her as ma’am, etc.

This woman expected to be treated that way.  She exhibited the physical prompts that elicit the behavior she expects and she gets it.  We have Neal Stephenson’s word (via the treasure  of  Waterhouse family lore) that this happened.  I cite it to suggest the kind of thing I am talking about when I speculate about the woman in the picture.

So let’s imagine that she treats people badly and doesn’t notice it.  You might think that odd, but it isn’t really.  People who value what she brings to the table–“who she is,” we say–take her behavior as the kind of thing beautiful girls do.  Maybe her status as a beautiful girl is defined, in part, by the fact that she treats people like that and they take it in stride.

Or maybe she notices it and figures that for some reason, she can get away with it.  People attribute a virtue to her that somehow excuses her behavior.  We would expect her to learn that she can get away with it long before she figured out just what “it” was. [2] High school jocks in a school that values sports work the same way.  They really don’t need to be nice to people.  People are nice to them no matter what.

But whatever it was, it isn’t working for her anymore.  I am trying to get to the place she was, conceptually, when it occurred to her that what she had been doing–I am speculating that it was “being beautiful”–no longer carries the day.  She is going to have to pay attention to how she treats people.  Back in the good old days, she treated them any way she wanted to and they simply absorbed it as the cost of being in her presence.  Now, when she treats them badly, they treat her badly.  She doesn’t like that.  It hurts.

And in that kind of social/emotional pain, she discovers a connection she had never had occasion to notice before.  People who are treated badly don’t like it and after a while of your treating them badly, they don’t like you either.  Whoa!  News flash!  People don’t like being mistreated!

I am going to some lengths to make this woman appear to be clueless, but I am doing it for a reason.  We think she should have been picking up the clues all along, but in the scenario I have been sketching, there have not been clues all along.  When you treat people in a certain way and they respond positively to you, everything makes sense.  There is no anomaly to be explained.  Anomalies are clues.  When we call this woman “clueless,” we are imagining that there were anomalies that should have caught her attention and she ignored them.  What if there weren’t any clues?

I know more about this than you might think.  In my first teaching job, I taught eighth graders in a 1–8 elementary school in Ohio.  I was the first male teacher a lot of these fourteen year old girls had ever had.  For the first time in my life, I was faced with girls who thought I was WONDERFUL and based that feeling on nothing I had anything to do with.  It wasn’t me.  It was “it;” whatever you want to call that particular status, the First Male Teacher status.

I didn’t know how to treat these girls.  The whole social feedback system, which I had been thinking I was pretty good at, had shut down.  I was used to tossing off a pun and if it was good, people responded appropriately.  By groaning or rolling their eyes, mostly.  If it was bad, they responded appropriately.  Discouraging words were heard.  Blows were delivered. I got that.  For people who were on my own middle-ish social level, the clues came in and I adjusted my behavior on the fly in response to them.  That’s what I knew how to do.

None of that worked for me so far as these girls were concerned.  They thought I was hilariously funny all the time because they wanted me to like them.  They basked in my attention, whether what I thought was that I was teaching them a civics lesson or complaining about their behavior or commenting on their homework.  I simply wasn’t picking up the clues because they were carefully hiding them.  I was “clueless,” like the beauty I met this week, and it wasn’t my fault.

That makes me just a little wary about saying that it was her fault; that “she should have known.”

In any case, she had learned this particular lesson and she turned to the only other man in the store (not the clerk) and delivered this lesson in a tone of wonder.  Why would she say that to me?  Why would she say it that way?  What kind of a life had protected her from the blindingly obvious playground wisdom that when you treat people badly, they won’t like you?

I don’t know, obviously.  I said at the beginning that I didn’t know and now I have illustrated it at some length. [3] But I have to tell you, it was a strange experience to have an attractive older woman turn to me, a stranger, and lay that bit of wisdom on me.  I took the picture, hoping it would help me work through what the experience meant.

I think I have taken it as far as I can.  To go any further, I will need help.

[1]  It’s never too late to have a little fun at the expense of Fox News, which, in their famous tagline, regards accuracy, context, and meaning and below their high journalistic calling.

[2]  Birdie Pruitt, played by Sandra Bullock in the movie Hope Floats has that experience played out for her.  She was a local beauty in high school and married Mr. Right and moved away.  She came back to her home town in disgrace and discovered that now that she wasn’t the beauty queen anymore, people were letting her know how they felt about the way they had been treated.

[3]  People here in Portland, who know me and who know that Bette has been in Germany for two weeks, will read this essay and say, “So…when is Bette coming home?”


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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