Please welcome today’s guest writer, Josh Betts. Josh graduated from Calvin College in 2013 with a degree in history. He is a history buff, an avid board gamer, a follower of rap music, and a consumer of fine (and sometimes not-so-fine) whiskeys.
I have a confession to make: I am a stereotype.
I’m a millennial, serial job-hopper who has no idea what to do with his life. I’m only twenty-six and I’ve already had twelve different jobs in my lifetime. I’ve worked as a house painter, a salesperson, a recruiter, a corporate trainer, a research assistant, a cashier, a welder, a cook, and a landscaper. Now, this doesn’t say much for me as an employee, but it has given me a unique insight into different work cultures and I’ve come away with the following insight into the human condition:
Niceness has almost nothing to do with goodness. In fact, niceness is the cheapest form of goodness.
Landscaping and welding are both jobs that are considered “blue-collar.” The work culture is gruff, rough, and no nonsense. Most of my coworkers at these jobs would not be considered nice by any standard. On the other hand, as a recruiter, corporate trainer, and a sales rep, I have worked with my fair share of people who perfectly represent Midwestern niceness.
These environments could not be more different, and it’s typical to assume the office environment is more civilized. In a way that’s true, but my experience has shown me that the surface level sweetness of an office is a cover for a petty, conniving, grasping culture. Outright rudeness or gruffness is looked down upon, sometimes even punished, but that doesn’t stop the toxic gossiping and passive-aggressive emails to managers. That doesn’t stop coworkers who are competing with each other from turning in little mistakes to the boss in hopes of gaining a leg up. This is most apparent in sales, where we are trained to use niceness to manipulate and coerce people into buying products they are not sure they need.
The blue-collar world is the opposite. If I make a mistake, I’m likely to get chewed out and cussed at by my coworker for a minute, then they will show me what I did and teach me how to do it right. If I made a mistake in the office, it was often reported to a higher up without my knowledge and it became a big issue that had to be dealt with through future meetings and occasionally a performance plan or discipline write-up.
Now, obviously, not everyone in an office is a dramatic, conniving, grasper and not every blue-collar worker is a gruff jerk, but I ask you, which one is better? Which one is “good?”
This difference was spelled out very clearly to me in a bizarre sequence of events that occurred while mowing the lawn of a local mall. While landscaping the green area around this mall, a scuffle broke out in the parking lot between a man and a woman. There was shouting and it was escalating quickly and becoming physical. My coworker quickly drove his lawnmower over to the couple that was fighting and interrupted them with a jarring shout of “WHAT THE **** IS GOING ON OVER HERE!?” He asked the woman if he should call the cops and made sure the man stayed until the cops came. Now, the hero of this story has about the gruffest, meanest, exterior of anyone I have worked with, but this was certainly a “good” act.
I think about how something like this would be handled in an office. I can’t help but picture all these “nice” people calling security while staying far away from the fighting. After all, “nice” people don’t get involved in such things. It’s not nice to fight. It’s best to let it be handled by someone else.
It reminds me of a quote I once heard about Gerald R. Ford (I’ve been trying to find the source of this quote on the web, but I can’t seem to dig it up anywhere, so I’ll have to paraphrase from memory). “President Ford was the kind of man who would give up his jacket to a child in the streets then walk into the Oval Office and sign legislation to cut social safety nets for the poor.”
I find a similar situation around lots of politicians these days. I recently had a conversation with a teacher about Betsy DeVos that went something like this:
Me: “I can’t believe Betsy DeVos is the secretary of education. She’s going to be terrible to public schools and students.”
Teacher: “I know, but I’ve met her before and she’s a nice person.”
Me: “So, what? Who cares if she was nice to you once if the rest of the time she is making decisions that hurt the lives of millions of students? Doesn’t that bother you as a teacher?”
Teacher: “I don’t know why you’re being so mean about her. I’m just saying she was nice when I met her.”
Alright, so, obviously that conversation was paraphrased… but that is the gist of it. I was upset by the potential policies that would hurt students in the future, but the conversation could not go to a deeper level about these policies because Secretary DeVos is a “nice person” and it’s wrong to say “mean” things about a nice person.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t more pleasant to deal with nice people than gruff or mean people, but if niceness is any form of goodness, it is the cheapest kind. At best, it makes everything a little more pleasant, but at worst it works as a mask for bad intentions.