How To Be Nice To People

A few weeks ago, I was coasting in my van down 6th avenue in Denver, a dollar in my hand ready to hand out the window to whoever was standing with a cardboard sign at the corner of 6th and Colorado (there’s always someone there). As I got close, I saw the light was green, and I had to keep moving, and the person had turned their back anyway since traffic was now flying by at 25 mph.

I started to turn left onto Colorado, and the SUV next to me turned left as well, cutting me off. It’s not a double turn lane, and they were technically wrong. Immediately I thought, that’s not right, and honked my horn. Then I held the horn longer, just to drive home the message in case they hadn’t noticed.

I felt embarrassed immediately, that I had gone from wanting to help someone to basically whining in the span of about 10 seconds. Stop being an asshole, I said to myself. It wasn’t dangerous, I barely had to hit the brakes to avoid them, my day wasn’t ruined—the extra-long horn honk was just a way of saying “You’re doing it wrong.” Like a jerk would say it, though.

Do you ever catch yourself being an asshole? In the car, on the Internet, to a barista who misunderstood your order, to a person who disagrees with your political views?

I’m in the middle of what John “Slomo” Kitchin calls “trying to get to the end of my life without becoming an asshole.”

But it’s hard. We all have things we want to do, not enough time to do them, and the world moves way too slowly when we’re at work and not fast enough when we’re outside the office. Every once in a while, someone in a grocery store checkout aisle looks back and says, “Hey, you only have one item, why don’t you go in front of me,” but usually, everyone is just kind of in our way. We live in a country where we believe it’s always Us vs. Them, as if our political parties are two football teams and only one is going to win the Super Bowl of Quality of Life. We don’t see any way to work together; we just want our team to win.

In an article last December, Slate called 2014 “The Year of Outrage.” In the story, writer Choire Sicha explained one way we’re becoming more angry:

“We used to yell at the TV but it couldn’t hear us. Finally someone can. So you turn to all the people next to you, all the friends and followers, and you are typing and then you are hitting send, post, tweet, submit.”

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the Internet has given us the capability to be incredibly mean to each other, often anonymously. It is, and it seems there are people out there whose sole contribution to the universe is a mass of negative comments about everything, which they work at on a daily basis. We’ve somehow forgotten that world does not get better when we say something shitty about someone else, whether one person or a thousand agree with us. We argue with each other about things we know we’ll never budge on, in the end both only affirming our belief that the other person is still wrong and we’re still right, and our disbelief that they could be such an idiot.

Being nice to people is incredibly simple—Google “the Golden rule” if you need a refresher—but somehow, we’ve forgotten how to do it.

There are thousands of different paths to happiness, and thousands of books citing thousands of studies on how to be happy. An informal, unscientific, undocumented study of people I’ve met who appear to be pretty happy has shown that not being a jerk to other people is as good as any of them.

Here’s one very simple example of how to not be a jerk: You are drinking a coffee at a sidewalk cafe and someone walks down the street wearing pants that are way too tight (or way too loose, or too bright or too dark or too short or too long, or basically just different the pants you’re wearing). The way you were brought up, you would never wear those pants. Everyone in your social circle would agree that those pants are too tight. They go against everything you’ve ever been taught or learned about the world. They’re an abomination. How dare that person wear pants that tight.

You could say something to the person next to you, or take a photo and put it on Instagram with a mean comment, or silently shake your head in disgust as the person walks by, or find a social media outlet to communicate a sweeping generalization about people who wear tight pants.

Or you could take control of your own suffering, remind yourself that no one is making you stare at the pants, and really, in the end, that person’s tight pants make no difference in your life. Just keep enjoying your coffee and move on with your day.

Better yet, send your mother a text message and ask how she is doing. Or hold the door for the person behind you, or go ahead and let that person who drove all the way to the front before merging just go ahead, or say “thank you” more times in a day than you say “screw you,” or choose to look at photos of golden retrievers on Instagram instead of arguing with a Facebook friend who disagrees with you. Because being an asshole never made anybody happy.

-Brendan

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20 Comments

  • Thanks for the reminder Brendan. It’s mostly those little actions we do that sum up who we are. We all should reflect on what we do and what we want to be

  • My view: When it’s your turn, take it. But never insist on it and be polite either way. It’s not always easy to do, but there’s always another turn coming to try again. Keep trying.
    Less assholishness all around. I’m pretty sure being an asshole somehow contributes to global warming too 🙂

  • Awesome bro! I’ve got to believe that if more people filled themselves up on stuff like the above than the typical garbage, our world would be a much more friendly place.

  • A solid reminder to “chillax” when the anger meter starts to rev a bit. As a society, we used to be in touch with a handful of people a day or perhaps a few dozen if you were in school or at an office. Between living in urban areas and social media, we have the opportunity to be in contact with thousands of people a day. It’s amazing that the road rage and cyber rage don’t result in more disasters.

  • long time listener, first time caller etc….

    I was riding my bicycle into work this morning, along the bike path that runs along the waterfront here in Toronto. A younger woman went to turn left off the path from the right-most side without a signal or even a shoulder check. I ended up jamming the brakes and sliding into the side of her (slowly). No one fell, and no damage was done, but a very important thing happened – I realized as I was skidding in slow motion that this woman wasn’t trying to cut me off, and she wasn’t riding dangerously. She just made a simple mistake, and never would have turned across the path had she known that I (and others) were coming up behind her. There was absolutely no benefit to getting angry or acting uncivil. I didn’t need to remind her to “watch where you’re going” because I would have just sounded like a jerk. I asked if she was okay, and she was, so I smiled and rode off.

    what’s my point? Every time you respond in a positive way to a difficult situation, you get better at it.

  • This is exactly how I’ve felt all week biking around Estes Park! Everyone is selfish in their own little world. I just try to ride cautiously, follow the rules, while remembering that I GET to live in such a wonderful place and that the world owes me nothing.

  • Step 1: make eye contact
    Step 2: smile
    Step 3: say “hello”

    Being raised in the South, and spending many hours riding the CTA & EL in Chi, I often find myself bummed out by the lack of eye contact and friendly banter in the Denver area. No judgement, but it’s sort of a self-absorbed breed along the Front Range. People make so much fun of me here for being annoyingly friendly, I now dodge strangers’ gazes as I grumpily go about my day. Except, an older gentleman called me out on this today as I was walking past him into the grocery store…he forced me to drop the act and say hello. Cheers to folks who still give a darn about strangers, and focus on being kind. Thanks for this important message, Brendan.

  • Thanks Brendan! Very poignant for me…I’m usually a nice guy but it’s all too easy to slip into “asshole” mode, especially when I’m behind the wheel.

  • If anyone needs pictures of a Golden Retriever who always makes eye contact and says hello to strangers, let me know. Willow has more than enough “nice” to go around. And it’s contagious.

    Great post, Brendan!

  • Thanks for the refresher this week, Brendan. Everyone can stand to be a little less assholy and it doesn’t require much from each of us. Good stuff.

  • Very thought-provoking, relevant piece. Seems like people are more self-absorbed these days than ever. Taking a minute to do something nice for someone else can make everyone feel more human.

  • I am going read this to my sixth grade class on the first day of school. This is an excellent insight into life and what it means to be happy. I will edit (of course) the “bad words” because I love my job, but what you have to share with the world, shout be shared with the younger generations so they understand that happiness and money does not go hand in hand. Happiness is what you find in your life, and what truly drives you to be the person you want to be.

  • Late to this party, enjoying it all the same! Perceptive post. I guess most of us fall on both sides of the issue at times. I know I’m happier when I take things in stride. Khalil Gibran said ” Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”

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