Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The fine line between being nice or stupid

One of my father's mantras was that it is important to be nice, but not stupid.

Very simple words, but powerful nonetheless. Essentially, it is a lesson in personal worth. While it is important to be a nice person, you also have to be careful not to be taken for an idiot. He would most often say this when it was incumbent upon him to let somebody in ahead of him in traffic. We've all lived through this situation, right? Picture yourself on Wolf Road, or College Avenue, or Avenida San Martin in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. There are dozens of cars hoping to get onto those major streets from the various parking lots and whatnot.

Of course, the civil thing to do is to let a car in ahead of you every now and then. Especially in Argentina, when you let that one car in ahead of you, the three cars behind the one you let in suddenly think that they have a free pass, too. Not so fast, would say Bob, "Soy bueno, pero no soy estupido."

But this mantra can be so much more meaningful than just a traffic flow paradigm. It can apply to work, friends, and relationships. And, as I said above, I think it is clearly a matter of personal worth because you have to be strong enough to realize that no matter how nice you are to people, eventually they may try to take advantage of it. So, the key question becomes, when do you draw the line? At what point do you stop being nice so that you are not being taken for a fool?

It is not as easy as you may think. I would say, for the most part, that I am a reasonably nice person. Sure, I curse out other drivers from my car, I make fun of people, I laugh at things that I probably should not laugh at. But, I don't hit people or yell at them. I'm not like an altar boy, but I'm also not Marilyn Manson. As a camp counselor, I would "punish" misbehaving campers by making them write essays - harmless, right? So, in the grand scheme of things, I would say that I am probably "nice."

At the same time, I would also say that, after thinking of my father's saying recently, that I have also very frequently in my life crossed into the "stupid" side of the continuum. Take a for instance that I just thought of: I was walking out of Price Chopper last month and this organization was selling random crap to fundraise. I was unable to just say "No" to their appeal and walk away. Instead, I got a worthless $10 water bottle that does not even work right. Yes, a water bottle that does not work.

This may seem like a "nice" moment. "Aw, he supported [insert good cause here.]" First of all, no shit that it was a good cause, it's not like the Nazi party can set up a table outside Price Chopper. Second of all, it's not like I can afford a $10 water bottle. I wouldn't have a use for it even if it worked. Verdict: estupido.

But that was an easy example. I think it is more precise when you are being stupid in situations like that. It is less clear to discern being nice from being stupid in your day-to-day interactions with people, especially people that you have built a relationship with. For example, I had a good friend in high school - my debate partner, actually - who suddenly stopped communicating with me. Then, when he flew home from college on winter break one year, he called me and asked me to pick him up at the airport - which for me at the time was an hour and a half drive, in snow mind you. I agreed and gave him a ride.

Then, after he ignored me the rest of winter break, I realized what a jackass I was. That is the type of stand that my father's saying suggests. I would never ever have thought twice about picking up a good friend from the airport - in fact I would have been happy to do so. On the other hand, I would never ever have picked up a random stranger, either. It is the peripheral relationships that are dangerous because when people realize that you are stupid, they will run over you like a herd of bufa...buffa...buffo...bison and not give a damn about it.

Look out world. I'm done being a nice idiot. Wise words from the old man.

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