Nice Guys (or Gals) Finish When They Want To

“Nice guys finish last.” You still hear that a lot, especially in “corporate” settings. As someone who’s got a reputation for being “nice” on occasion, I happen to disagree with this notion.

“Nice” can mean many things: polite, genuine, honest, well-meaning, mild-mannered, non-combative, what have you. None of those definitions requires you to be a doormat.

I went into an interview once to see what the work was about. It turned out (the ad was vaguely written) the position was selling stocks. The guy who was interviewing me did everything possible to sell me on the job, including get in my face by walking around the desk to poke me in the chest and literally prod me into a job I didn’t want. From the moment I heard, “Are you a man or not?” I laughed in the guy’s face.

I said, “You’ve obviously got the wrong guy. I won’t be taking this job.” I thanked him for his time and walked out of the interview.

In much the same way, I almost walked away from buying a used car because I had anywhere from one to three dudes playing every game in the book, from taking my car keys to (again) stepping around the desk and trying to use physical proximity to intimidate me into buying the car I already knew I wanted. “What can I do to get you do buy this car today?” the point man finally asked.

Keeping my tone level, I said, “Nothing. If I get my loan approved, I’ll come back tomorrow and buy it. If I don’t, I won’t.” So then it became a challenge for these guys to sell it to me right there and then. If there wasn’t a challenge, there wasn’t a point to their job, I guess. I asked for my keys and left.

I came back the next day, check in hand, talked to a different salesman, and left with the car I wanted without a lot of hassle. The first salesman scowled at me as I left. He had the sale day before, but I had taken the fun out of it for him because he couldn’t force me to do things his way. Pity.

So lesson #1 about “nice” people: just because they’re not acting aggressively  doesn’t mean that they lack strength. 

I’ve also faced situations where I wanted something and was faced with resistance of some sort, whether it was a hotel rate I was promised, an insurance policy I wanted to cancel, or a complaint I wanted resolved. In such cases, again, I’ve had to restrain my temper because half of some folks’ game is to get you to lose your temper so you can be seen as the unreasonable “aggressor” and give them an excuse not to respond to you.

Regardless, my method of argument usually involves getting an unhelpful party to live up to their promises, rules, or reputation. Or, failing that, I ask to speak to someone’s manager and repeat the process up the chain…without raising my voice.

Lesson #2 about “nice” people: just because we’re not yelling or pushing people around doesn’t mean that we’re not upset or not persistent. We still want to get our way.

All this is not to say that I will never raise my voice. I once got angry enough at a peer who was not doing what I asked that my volume, pitch, and harsh language became severely elevated. I had a headache from the argument for two weeks afterward. It was not one of my prouder moments, but weeks of trying to be “reasonable” had gotten me nowhere and in the end the work got done. I made the decision after that point not to yell any further–the goal was to get the work done, not come across as a raving lunatic.

Lesson #3 about “nice” people: eventually, you will push us too far, and then be prepared for the thunderbolt.

I guess the point of this little essay is to encourage those of you who are (or are told you are) “nice” not to surrender to more aggressive people around you because of your preferred behavior or temperament.

You don’t need to yell and scream to get your way. If you do–like a parent trying to enforce discipline–make it memorable and infrequent. You can use your easygoing nature or quiet persistence to get your way more often than not. Being nice reduces friction with those around you and makes them more disposed to be agreeable with you on a regular basis. Having a reputation for being an S.O.B., not so much. However, there will come those moments where nice is not enough. That’s when firmness and persistence can be your best, boldest tools.

Final lesson: You might be nice, that doesn’t mean you’re not serious about getting what you want.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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