Be Nice – Get Free Stuff!

September 12, 2009

Getting back to the more mundane day-to-day of being civil, I think it is time to address the question of “what is in it for me”? Why be nice?

First, let me state clearly that I believe we should be civil for the sake of being civil, not for an expectation of  a reward or compensation. Being nice is an end unto itself, not a means. But, I have found time and time again that practicing overt civility in public yields tangible benefits as a side effect. And, I’m not just talking about going home at night and feeling good about myself.

I have had many occasions where my courtesy, kindness or attentiveness have resulted in the receipt of some form of recognition. I’ve called a maitre’d or head waiter over to my table to compliment the truly exemplary service of a staff member and received free desserts. I have told a friend and business owner that I have brought my project to them because I know the end product will be high quality, and I’ve received a discount (or happily, a bottle of good wine). Or, football tickets from friends who remember me saying something kind about their son or daughter.

But, one particular event sticks out in my memory as the pinnacle of my free-stuff-for-good-manners history.

I had the good fortune of attending a conference in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of years ago. The conference was great, and as it finished up I packed to head home. I totally failed to read my travel itinerary, and the chain of events that followed was entirely my fault. I showed up at the Zurich airport at 9:00 a.m. for my flight back to the United States, and jumped into the mass of people that passes for a check-in line in Europe. When I reached the desk, the agent looked at me with disdain and informed me that I had missed my flight. I was shocked, but upon reading my itinerary I realized that my travel office has booked a connecting flight. I always took direct flights home when I worked in Europe, so I didn’t even bother to check to see if I had a first and second flight.

I sulked my way over to the airline desk and stood in another line. I was really put off, even though it was my fault. Standing in the line, I realized that I needed to own my mistake. I really, really wanted to be ornery and mean. I wasn’t a happy camper. But, when I stepped up to speak to the agent, I explained that I completely screwed up and I understood if it might take me an extra day to get home. The young lady shook her head and said it would be very difficult to help me. As I was speaking to her, a really aggressive gentleman pushed his way past me and demanded to know where he was supposed to check in. Over the course of the next half hour, the agent worked on my situation but was repeatedly interrupted by the same man coming to the counter and getting more and more agitated. Because he kept leaving the line, the airline actually closed out the flight before he checked in. And then the fireworks started. Eventually he was escorted from the ticket desk by security.

After the drama subsided, the ticket agent said to me “You know, I’m not really authorized to do this, but you have been so nice to me, and patient. And that other guy was such a jerk. I can get you on a connecting flight from here to Frankfort, Germany. When you get there, I have booked you in the First Class section on the second deck of the airplane.” I’ve traveled a lot, but I have never before or since gotten to ride in the top deck of a Lufthansa 747. And I have to tell you, it was awesome!

99% of the time, acting in a civil manner doesn’t result in anything other than a warm feeling. But, there is no denying that there are tangible benefits to being nice; whether it is a free extra shot of espresso or the use of a friend’s vacation home for a week of relaxing.

So, go out there and be nice – and get free stuff!