For years, I would get off at Farragut West and take a longer route to work just to toss him a coin and listen to the sound of his trumpet on Lafayette Square. I could hear him from blocks away, as he greeted passersby with a voice as loud as his instrument and just as happy: “God bless. I love you. Have a lovely morning!”
I never asked his name, and he never knew mine, but many of my bleak winter mornings have indeed been made brighter by that old man in rags. I don’t recall ever stopping for more than a few seconds, but I always felt lighter once I got on my way again, mindful of the warmth and scent of coffee radiating from my hands, looking up at the clouds in hopeful anticipation of a little blue sky.
Now, nice cost me a job once. A dream job, with the bells and whistles of a senior UN position. I am talking tax-free, high figures, diplomatic status, tuition reimbursement and six weeks of paid leave.
I had made the long and short lists, and was confident as I landed in the Hague for the final round of recruitment. An interview planned for 30 minutes went on for nearly an hour. I was well prepared and had done my homework. I dodged all of their bullets and even fired a few back. I was sure I was hitting every nail on the head.
Too sure, perhaps. Which might explain why I never saw it coming. Towards the end of the meeting, the most empathetic interviewer asked me this, through a genuine smile: “How would your friends describe you?” I will let you guess my answer. It is a four-letter word.
She and her colleagues retained their smiles and shook my hand politely as we parted ways. But the phone never rang. As it turns out, the court for which I was applying is busy trying to bring to justice and eventually send to prison mass murderers and dictators with private armies and vaults teeming with bribe money. I guess they just don’t do nice. What was I thinking?
I eventually landed a job with a UN organization not too long after that, and my mood gradually improved under layers of rationalization. Who did they think they were?
I relocated to Geneva, and before long I found myself once again walking longer than needed, so I could go through the gate where Lourdes would greet me with a smile and where François would pull my leg about football, in his typical African accent. Their badges read ‘Security,’ but they did more than just keep you safe. They kept us all sane and got everyone off to a good start. Theirs is a thankless job, but one that helps make the organization less toxic, more productive, a tad nicer.
Past those gates, UN agencies, or the international courts, for that matter, are no different than most workplaces, with the good, the bad and every shade in-between. There is great collegiality and there is verbal abuse. There are random acts of kindness, and office politics that can fast devolve into back stabbing. Then again, who needs nice?
I would argue we all do. We just don’t realize it.
In a time of police brutality, when politicians get elected on bravado, and where yelling gets deadlines met, most of us have learned to see politeness as wimpy and meek. We contemplate meanness as a shield worth wearing, despite the long-lasting harm it does to others and ourselves once the excitement of immediate gains fades away.
Nasty may get things done, but it also gets people reaching for their coat and hat. Like in the Hague, where the applicant who beat me to the job left before her full contract term. She was probably too nice, I’m thinking.
Anybody who has ever worked for a jerk understands the value of civility. It gets you out of bed in the morning ready to go an extra mile. It drives us beyond good enough. It clears up the air and prevents us from turning into another jerk. It gets results, too, and they tend to last longer, as do the people who bring them about. Nice draws us in and makes us stick around. Nice retrains. Nice retains.
Of course nice can also be an excuse out of a kitchen that just got too hot, an escape route back to the safety of one’s old comfort zone. But it also keeps you true to your purpose, your true credo. It is the voice that tells you where to go once you realize you don’t need nasty.
I eventually did. I quit that job, uprooted my family one more time and flew back across the ocean, on to new pursuits.
I now commute by car, so I am not often on the subway. But I still take a detour and drive by Lafayette Square on occasion. The man and his trumpet are long gone, yet I hear his tunes. I hear his voice, too, against the tingling of coins being dropped on his shallow tin can. I flip an imaginary quarter in the air and silently send him love and gratitude. And every time, as if by miracle, my morning gets a tad brighter.
Ewandro is a TED author, writer, interpreter and all-around nice guy.
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