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Will Everyone Please Stop Being So Nice?

December 30, 2009

After last week’s post about my painting ordeal, I got a few messages from incredulous readers asking how we could have started building a house in May and not be finished in December.   Especially when the builder said it would take 8 weeks. 

I’ve been asking the same question.

The answer is bizarre, but true:  Everyone is just too nice to get the job done.

No one wants to make waves or hurt feelings.  So things just sort of end up in gridlock where nothing gets done except for lots of cell phone calls and text messages.

I think a lot of it has to do with the schooling process.  Kids today are constantly being told to share and to be nice.  Everyone deserves a chance and everyone deserves to be heard.  And everyone deserves recognition and to get their own way.  Although there are evil things in the world like bullies and peanuts, most of the time everything is nice.  Confrontation is a no-no.

The result is a bunch of people who have not been trained for it, being forced to come to terms with reality.  In the real world, things don’t go according to plan.  Conflicts occur.  But they are not prepared to deal with it. 

Solution?  Denial.

The coping strategy I observed most frequently during the building process was an attempt to reconstruct reality from, well, reality, into something approximating what we want to have happen.

That is all well and good and noble, but unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way.  These attitudes about niceness and conflict resolution do not create harmony. They create hypertension.  Consider the following exchange.

Me:  So.  When will the plastering be finished?  We can’t paint until the plastering is finished and the painters must start on Wednesday.

Builder:  Well, then I guess the plastering will be finished on Tuesday.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  But then on Wednesday morning I get a call telling me that the plastering isn’t finished.  Not only is it not finished. it is days from being finished.

So I call the builder to attempt to understand this gulf between expectation and reality.

Me:  (use your imagination).

Builder:  You mean they’re not done?  I told them to be done. 

It does no good to remonstrate.  You can’t hate him.  Strangle?  Maybe, but he’s just  too nice.  I had given him a non-negotiable timetable.  He didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me that there was no way in hell the plastering would be finished when I wanted it to be.  It was easier to present me with a fait accompli and then commiserate about those lazy plasterers.

The same behaviour was repeated throughout the project, but it has gotten especially complex and almost ritualistic near the end.  Like all people who are paying for a building project, I now have a list of things which aren’t done, but which, in my opinion need to be done.

The builder doesn’t want to do them.  That’s partly why they weren’t done in the first place.  Normally you wouldn’t think that would be acceptable behaviour.  But, once again, it is what is being taught in schools.  My nephews once brought home a letter from the principal to all parents saying, in essence, that (1) kids don’t like doing homework, (2) parents don’t like cajoling kids to do the homework and (3) teachers don’t like being told by parents that the whole concept of homework is stressing everyone out.  So, the principal, like a modern day Solomon, had decided that henceforth there would be no homework. 

Problem solved.

This same sort of logic is followed by the builder with respect to finishing up loose ends.  He doesn’t want to do those things, he doesn’t want to hear me nag him about doing them.  Therefore, they don’t need to be done.

I’m serious.  Either I can do them myself or just live with them.  Consider the following exchange:

Me:  The side door is warped.  You can see daylight at the bottom when it’s closed and it doesn’t fit flush in the frame.

Builder:  Can you close and lock it?

Me:  Yes, but . . .

Builder:  So what’s the problem?

My niece, who teaches at a pre-school, says that one of the biggest hassles comes at the end of the day when it’s time to put away the toys.  The challenge, she says, is that there are always a few toys left lying around that no one will take responsibility for.  “Montana played with it last, she should put it away,” or “It’s broken.  We shouldn’t have to put it away,” or “I don’t know where it goes.”

This behaviour is rife during the building wrap up phase:

Me:  You didn’t put the runners on the sliding doors.

Builder:  I couldn’t because the painter was going to have to take the doors off.  Plus you were having carpeting installed.

Me:  Yes, I know.  But the doors are now painted and rehung and the carpeting is in.  So could you put the runners in?

Builder:  No.  The painter should do it.

Me:  But the last time he was here, the carpeting wasn’t in.  And he’s long gone.

Builder:  Then the carpet guy should do it.  And anyway, I’m long gone, too.

Me:  But he says he doesn’t know how.

Builder:  I’ve never heard of a carpet guy who doesn’t put runners in.

All of this is said with the most congenial I-really-want-to-help-you-but-you-are-being-unreasonable-and-asking-the-impossible-why-don’t-we-go-get-a-coffee-and-talk-about-my-upcoming-fishing-trip tone of voice. 

I ask you, how do you contend with that? 

Call me a wimp, but my strategy is to just give up and do it myself. 

As I thought about it I said, Ha ha, good thing this kind of behaviour only applies to builders.  Can you imagine if doctors had the same attitude?

But then I realized that pretty much every profession, other than lawyers, terrorists and doctors operates this way.

I don’t know about your broker, but mine hasn’t told me bad news in a long time.  (He lets the statements do the talking).  “It’s just a temporary adjustment.” 

Airline pilots have it down to a science.  You know you’re in trouble when you hear, “Well, folks, as soon as we have maintenance take a look at a little problem, we’ll be underway in just a couple of minutes.” 

And my dentist:  “This is such a small cavity I normally wouldn’t use novocaine at all.  But just to be on the safe side I’ll give you two shots.”

Please, no more Mr. Nice Guy.  I’m a big boy, I can take the truth.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2009 10:51 am

    Comparing your post today and mine, it appears that:
    1) people are too nice to be effective when seeing one another in the flesh (yours), and
    2) people unload all their accumulated animosity in reader letters, online comments and other interactions that are asynchronous or anonymous, ie not in the flesh (mine)

    • December 31, 2009 11:11 am

      Yes, and point 2 is especially troubling. In the 90s the Institute for the Future predicted this by pointing out that as work (and social) groups became increasingly geographically and “spiritually” diverse, communications by e-mail and IRC would be increasingly uncivilized. If people are physically remote and unlikely to ever meet, they will say things to each other that two people would never say face to face. They had a grid showing the different behaviours as distance increased and likelihood of meeting decreased and they labelled the furthest section the “Daemonic Zone,” which is where most internet forum commentary seems to reside.

  2. December 31, 2009 5:41 pm

    Ah, if it was the Institute For The Future and the 90s, my friend and intellectual sparring partner Paul Saffo must have been involved.

    Sounds like him.

    You’d get a kick out of him.

    • December 31, 2009 6:55 pm

      The person I dealt with there was Bob Johansen. We were doing work on how to manage and enable international work groups and the implications of technology. At the time they had something called the “Groupware Outlook Core Team” and Paul Saffo was a member of it. I don’t recall him specifically, but everyone I met there was impressive.

  3. Gail permalink
    December 31, 2009 7:48 pm

    Tom, sorry to disillusion you but it does go to the medical profession. Alex had a nasty cancer removed from his leg with heaps of radiotherapy following. Almost 12 months later it has flared again. Return to the specialist who informed him that it didn’t look good so he would take a huge biopsy and phone him(Alex) with the results. As there was no follow up call 10 days later, we phoned only to have a recorded message that the office was closed until 10th. January. Alex has lost a further 4 kgs. the leg looks no better and we are left in limbo.

  4. January 2, 2010 3:32 am

    Read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. This is just so much about the things you’re writing here… confrontation, decision making, responsibilities, “absolute” vs. “non-absolute”.

    And I also think most of these things derive from the family and not from outsource education. The foundation, the base is laid in the first n years of a child’s life by the parents (and not “disinterested” persons like a school principal or, heaven forbid, social workers) . Further on, when a child grows up it’s only ramifications and adjustment to reality still based on the same old concepts of “good” and “bad” originating from home.

    • January 2, 2010 7:42 am

      Welcome back!

      You’re right–reality is much more nuanced and there are so many differences across individuals that can only be attributed to early family experiences.

  5. January 2, 2010 4:30 pm

    Ahh, to be without homework. Always a good-sounding idea, but when put into this context, it’s easy to see how bureaucratic and pseudo-psychological failures occur.

  6. dafna permalink
    January 9, 2010 3:32 am


    i had to look up “daemon”, which in turn spurred me to click on your blog link.

    andreas first post seems most relevant in that a person does not behave assertively then where does their tension go? they are either doormats or explosions. or as he points out spewing their frustrations out in the wrong place.

    excuse me for being simple, but you have paid for a service – in addition from saying the words “this must me done” and realizing the world won’t fall apart, is there no action oriented remedy? (don’t pay for service not received, or something like?)

    i find assertiveness has an inverse relationship to what you call internet daemonic behavior. the less i fear asserting myself in person the more i am horrified by anonymous bloggers doing things they would never do face to pace.

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