I took the bus a lot when I lived in the UK. In the Faroes, everyone has a car. The public transport system is bad, the terrain mountainous and the weather cold, wet and windy. So everyone drives (or is driven). But in the UK, I used buses. A lot.
They do something curious on UK buses. They thank the bus driver when they get off the bus. It took my a month or two to get over how weird that felt. “I just paid you,” I thought. “Isn’t that thanks enough?” But as I thought about it, even though I could logically justify my silence while alighting, there clearly was no harm in being nicer than necessary. In fact, I could see only positives to being nice. I felt better, the bus driver felt appreciated and the whole mood or atmosphere of the bus became one of respect and politeness.
One more thing about buses, at least in Aberdeen: You pay with exact change, the amount of which you drop into a slot next to the ticket dispenser.
I was in Copenhagen once, a couple of years into my British education, and I had to take the bus to somewhere, can’t quite remember where. While at the bus stop I asked a fellow waiter what the ticket price was. It was 27 kroner or something. I had the change ready when the bus pulled up. As I stepped onto the bus I pushed the coins into the little slots next to the driver with a polite, British smile. The bus driver freaked out! “What the fuck are you doing!?”, he shouted. Apparently, in Denmark you hand the driver your cash and he drops the appropriate coins into the appropriate slots – one for 20-kroner, one for 10, one for 5 and so on. I didn’t know that. How could I know that? It had been years since I had taken a bus in Denmark. As I walked towards the back of the bus, apologised profusely, the driver kept cursing me out, his day apparently ruined by this clueless foreigner screwing up his coin-changing procedure.
I thought of these two buses the other day when I read Rod Dreher’s take on Catherine Newman’s article on how she’s raising her daughter not to be nice. Her daughter, Birdy, “is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.”
Newman seems to think niceness attracts predatory individuals (mostly men, of course!) and invites exploitation.
I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.
I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege: I’m a man. I’m white. I’m middle class. I’m educated. I also live in a tiny society where there’s a lot of social pressure to be pleasant because it costs you a lot more if you aren’t (everybody knows everybody and word spreads fast). But surely a balance can be struck between an inter-personal baseline of niceness and appropriate awareness of and vigilance towards genuinely dangerous individuals. Most people are pleasant enough. And most unpleasant people only hurt you as much as you let them hurt you. They also hurt themselves most of all, by polluting their character and social interactions with their unpleasantness. I don’t know the inner lives of date-rapers, but surely they don’t discriminate based on niceness. You don’t have to accept wolf-whistles in order to expect strangers to be as decent as you are.
Last time I checked, too much niceness wasn’t one of the pressing problems facing the human race.
Niceness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re nice to people, most of the time, they’ll be nice to you. If you opt to be less than nice to people, they’ll treat you with an equal lack of niceness. British buses are more pleasant than Danish one because of that. We can let the terrorists win and lower our niceness to their level. Or we can be nice by default, and firmly, but politely dismissive when genuinely threatening situations arise. A smile, as far as I’m concerned, cannot be wasted. That’s how we should raise our kids, as far as I’m concerned.