Someday my father and I are going to co-write a novel. We’ve been talking about it for years now. We are considering the epistolary form. The content will be largely autobiographical and we shall take a wry look at society and its conventions. Our own treatment as largely unsuccessful literary layabouts will be suitably ironic.
I have been collecting characters for our novel and I thought it was high time to write an aggressive defence of one of my most cherished prototypes: the nice person.
Since I’ve been in Berlin I’ve had the advantage of meeting lots of new people, many of whom vary substantially on a spectrum of pleasantness.
I have a “breaking news” example. I’m writing from my local library, where I am perched comfortably at a round table with my back to a radiator and a view to a study area.
Just now, my train of thought was interrupted by a booming voice. I looked up to see a large man approach a desk where two young girls, one in a floral headscarf and the other with a stripy jumper were studying.
“How DARE you talk in a library” he yelled. “This is supposed to be a QUIET area. The ImPERTINENCE. How DARE you?”
The girls’ faces were frozen with terror while his was red with vitriol.
“HAVE I MADE MYSELF UNDERSTOOD?”
I had not even been aware of so much as a whisper from the girls. But I was certainly interrupted by this foul-mouthed miscreant, who had taken library discipline into his own hands.
(By the way, I take respectful behaviour in libraries very seriously and absolutely believe in regulation. But in this case the offence was minor and the intervention disproportionate and without mandate.)
Nice people, thankfully, are not in short supply. They are the ones that instinctively apologise when you step on their toe and spend hours nodding sympathetically even when confronted by a dull narrative.
They are the cashiers that give you an extra nod when you’ve completed your purchase and the reporters that say “Oh don’t worry, I was useless at the start” when you display incompetence.
They are the people that do not recoil when a foul-smelling and batty woman sits next to them on the bus and the ones that engage in mini sprints to catch up with you when you’ve dropped a mitten.
Nice people, contrary to the individualist-inspired meme, do not (necessarily) end up on welfare.
Nice people are mostly self-consciously so. They have weighed up the cost of an unpleasant smell and dull conversation against the happy after-glow of having been pleasant. It’s moral mathematics.
Nice people are not walk-overs either. Sometimes they will startle you with their outrage or righteous indignation.
Nice people are sometimes quiet but that does not mean they are taciturn or shy. They are watchful. If you adopt a scornful and derisive tone, they will greet you with a steely silence. The effect is something in between disregard and non-compliance.
In our novel, the nice people won’t end up on welfare. And if they do, it will be very generous.