Monday, May 26, 2008

Getting further in life

My grandmother told me recently that you get farther in life by being nice. That didn't quite sound right to me. What immediately came to mind was a college friend who worked in a one-hour film development booth. She would develop in just a few minutes the film of people who were mean to her. To do this, she imposed on the good nature of her pleasant customers, sometimes making them wait past the one hour limit of company policy.

Also in college, I vividly remember writing maintenance request after maintenance request about the dryers not working. I'm sure at least a few of the couple hundred other women in that hall did the same. Finally, after several months, I put in a rather nasty phone call to the management. Within a week, I got a personal response, polite almost to the point of sucking up. They had asked the service company to come out: turned out the dryer vents were completely clogged with lent.

At my work, too, our polite customers have their work put on the bottom of our to-do list. The assumption driving these situations is that if a person is mean, what they are talking about must be important to them; if a person is nice, they must not really care about receiving whatever service they requested. My grandmother's sentiment seems like it should be true, but I just could not bring to mind a place where being nice got you ahead in life.

Then I got online and visited Wikipedia. Where long-term rudeness often results in an editor being banned. While good-faith negotiation may get controversial text accepted in an article, failure to be polite is the best way to have one's edits removed. I've seen several apparently successful owners of online publications attempt to bully their way into adding to or changing an article. Apparently surprised at the failure of this approach, they fall back to the publication they own in order to write about how awful a place Wikipedia is. My grandmother was right after all.

Of the situations discussed here, I think Wikipedia is different because the editors have no monetary transactions with each other. Giving nice people the short end of the stick seems to be driven by an environment of paid services. Unfortunately, that is how most of my days are spent: either at work, being paid for what I do, or outside of work paying others as I purchase food or clothing or pay bills. Although I'm hardly the first person to make this observation, I find it interesting that money leads to deterioration of social mores. If only we could figure out a way to get away from it.


Keith Bertelsen said...

It feels to me like it's not money itself that causes the breakdown, but rather the unmitigated idea that we must do anything to get someone else's money. This mentality has, in my mind, spiraled out of control: stores now have this idea that if the customer is disgruntled, they always deserve to be placated.

Sometimes I wonder how well a store would do if it kicked out the rude people. If they basically said "We are polite here. If you can't be polite, we don't want your business." Not that they wouldn't take complaints, but that they would ignore the mean people.

Interestingly, apparently stores used to be far more polite places. Maybe this is all just part of the long slide of manners in our society, and money just provides a nice incentive.

Although, as someone who tries to be a nice guy, it frustrates me to no end to see mean people getting ahead. Though even in the long term in life, people tend to stop interacting with mean people, and spend time with nice people; I guess there, mean people get their comeuppance.

That does not, however, come into play at stores. Sad. :(

lyrl said...

If the store owner had to deal with all its customers, they might be inclined to sacrifice the business associated with rude people. But if the owner is even one step removed from those who interact with the customers, then the owner only has to deal with the unpleasant customers if their employees fail to placate. So a policy of placating disgruntled customers prevents the owner from having to deal with the unpleasantness, plus the owner still benefits from the revenue they generate.

Perhaps the lessening of politeness in stores is related to the decreasing number of very small retail businesses? Hmm. Thanks for the comment, this is a very interesting line of thought.