Why I think we can all be nicer

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‘Wow, that was so nice of you! Most people don’t ever say anything like that…’ he said, while I was piling bottles of smoothies and tubs of cut up pineapple on the counter.

That was the reaction I got this morning at the airport in Frankfurt when I bought some breakfast after greeting the sales assistant with a cheerful ‘Wunderschönen guten Morgen!’ which essentially translates into ‘(wishing you a) wonderful good morning’.

Now us Germans may not be known for exuberance and our openly cheerful demeanour when we meet strangers. But how could travelling to Sydney not put me into a good mood? And why not share some of that with an unsuspecting news agency employee?

And why not generally be nice to strangers and make everyone’s day a bit brighter?

Hold on there, Eva, don’t get all Hollyood on us now…

I’m not suggesting we cause a scene like Julie and her sister Dorothy at the train station in Paris

But what I am proposing is that we can all be nicer to each other. Just a little bit. It doesn’t cost anything extra but it makes a big difference.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

To be nice and kind, compassionate and caring doesn’t mean we have to dissolve our intelligence and competence into sweetness and naïvity. Far from it.

What I mean by being nice is that we consider those around us before we act and react and make an effort to meet them with kindness and treat them in the way we would like to be treated.

Sure, when we get a parking ticket for returning to our car 5min later than the allowed time, it sucks. And we’re annoyed and probably angry. But shouting and swearing at the parking warden isn’t going to change that. They’re doing their job and I’m sure most of them would rather not hand out infringement notices but instead enjoy their walk around the city and get paid for it. They’re doing their job and we broke the rules and that’s what it comes down to. If we see them stick a parking ticket under our windscreen, why don’t we just talk to them nicely, wish them a happy day, apologise for breaking the rules and acknowledge that they’re ‘just doing their job’ and that any frustration in our own voice has more to do with us being angry at ourselves than at them?

I’d be surprised if the warden didn’t react differently to their normal pattern given the abuse they must get on a daily basis.

Out of my way

We’re all grow ups around here and while we manage to act accordingly most of the time, there are situations we find ourselves in when we behave like 5 year-olds in the playground. We walk down the street and someone, maybe a tourist, stands right in the way and makes no attempt to make way for us. But we’re in a rush and we’re on the right side and they just stand there oblivious to anyone else around them. Idiots!

What is going to happen when we get close to them? Right, we’ll shoulder-charge them, push them out of our way, because we’re right and they’re ignorant, aren’t they?

Will it make any difference to our arrival time if, instead of just pushing through, we take some steps to the side, maybe supported by a light-hearted ‘Coming through!’ and simply walk around them? Heck, if we’re feeling particularly adventurous, we could even add a couple of quickstep moves and give them something to smile about… And if said person in our way is a little child, and you’re walking hand in hand with your partner, raise those hands over the kid. They love that shit! (I haven’t tried that with an adult, but it could be fun too!)

So instead of insisting on our ‘right of way’, whatever form it may take, let’s be a bit more flexible and accommodating, because we’ll be in a better mood than after an elbow shove and the other person will be better off, too. Plus, at one point or another we’re probably elsewhere with our thoughts and stand in someone’s way…

You reap what you sow

In German we have a saying ‘How you shout into the forest is how the forest will respond’. If we’re nice to people, they’re more likely to be nice to us. It’s actually that simple.

But who needs to start by being nice? Why should I be the one who is nice to a stranger when I don’t know how they will react?

Well, someone has to start and the only behaviour we can control out of anyone in the world is our own. We, assuming a healthy mind and body, have full control over our actions and reactions. Yes, we are influenced by our environment, our health, our emotions and hormones and a bunch of other things. But at the end of the day, every action we take is something we do. Consciously or unconsciously. But it’s us doing it, not anyone else.

Given that everyone else’s behaviour is out of our control, we should start with us. If we treat others with kindness and compassion and are just a little bit nicer to our fellow humans, chances are high that the world, i.e. those humans around us, will treat us a little bit more nicely as well. And that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

If we want to trigger more positive reactions from those around us, we have to start with our own actions and meet them half way. At least. Better yet, let’s go further and surprise others to break open the mold they have cast around themselves as well.

What’s in it for me?

For this section, I want to go back a few years in my own life so I can explain what all of this means to me and how I see the effects in daily life. From where I’m sitting, we are not just the sum of our own actions and behaviours, the things we actively do, but equally the things we don’t do and the stuff we let happen to us. It’s about giving and receiving. Paying it forward, returning favours and doing so without expecting something in return. And when we do it because we truly mean it, we will reap the rewards.

But let me start at the beginning…

25 years ago…

When I was little and started primary school, I didn’t go to the best school around and there were a bunch of trouble makers in my class, but I had a nice teacher and that helped get me started on the right foot. From there I’ve always been ‘lucky’ and most teachers were nice or at least accepting of who I was. My brother on the other hand wasn’t just bullied by his classmates, but by his teachers as well. Yes, that is fucked up and I wish I could have helped him more at the time, but I was 6 so I had none of this figured out.

I put ‘lucky’ in quotation marks because I actually think that luck has very little to do with it all. Yes, I had no influence over who my teacher was going to be, but equally I somehow manifested an attitude over those formative years that brought more positive people into my life who would help me work my way through school with reasonable grades, inspired me to find an area I was interested in (Economics, French and Biology) and gave me goals to work towards. That in turn made me work harder at school which eventually resulted in pretty decent grades and the chance of finishing my secondary school career in style.

Moving into the real world

When I started working in an office while at university, I unfortunately didn’t have much opportunity to go beyond the tasks outlined in my job description, but I still learned a huge amount about corporate life during those 3 1/2 years, which set me up for post-university life.

After graduating I set out to conquer the world and was ‘lucky’ once again to find a supportive manager whom I worked with and who was firmly in my corner. He was not just a champion for my cause at the round table, but also challenged me and helped me get better at what I do.

My next gig saw me working, again, with an excellent manager, someone who relied on my support, appreciated my skills and talents and in return opened doors for me and removed obstacles, so I could do my best work. This is where my ‘Tableau journey’ started.

What the working relationships with these two people had in common was that there was great mutual appreciation and respect, our roles were clear, our communication was open and honest and we trusted each other.

Manager #1 got me onto an interesting project, in return I offered my help with additional work. Most of the time he didn’t need me to do anything extra help him out, but he appreciated the offer and for me it was a chance to dip my toes into other work and get a broader perspective.
Our personalities worked well together in client situations, we often finished each others sentences and were just on the same page with a lot of things. That made it easy to work together. Last year when I was in NZ, I caught up with him and told him all of this and what a difference to my career and my life his guidance and influence has made. He appreciated the feedback.

Manager #2 benefited from the work Manager #1 had done regarding my training and development. He gave me a lot more responsibility, asked for my advice and involved me in shaping our team. In turn I was the person he could rely on, especially when it came to managing ‘upward’ and fighting political battles. I had his back, supported him and made sure our team was seen and perceived in the right way across the organisation. He removed the obstacles from my path and gave me freedom to reach my targets in the way I saw most fitting.

He also taught me how to negotiate. He tried at least. One of the most memorable meetings from this time was when he told me he wanted to give me a raise, wrote a number on the whiteboard and said ‘Eva, you have to ask me for it. You have to ask me for this number, otherwise I can’t give it to you’. That stuck. And I asked. And I got it.

I would have stayed with him and gone anywhere to work with him. The reason I left, was a strategic choice and being fed up with the politics around us. And having 12 months left in Australia to have another adventure.

More freedom and responsibility

Enter the next role. It turned out to be cracking good. What I loved about it was the opportunity to use my Tableau skills and ‘do Tableau every single day’. I really enjoyed that, because I’m passionate about this data stuff and visualising numbers, finding stories and helping others see what they previously couldn’t.

In this job I was working pretty independently as a consultant and trainer. I moved from a 50,000 staff organisation to a 70 people firm and genuinely enjoyed working for a ‘small company’. The people were great, they had fun at work and were passionate about their clients. Management recognised what I could offer and got behind me, sending me on training and conferences even though they knew I would leave after 12 months.

In return I did whatever I could to leave behind a strong ‘legacy’. This included a bigger and stronger network of partners, customers and other contacts; lots of ideas that I brought to paper to be implemented when the time was right; a set of processes and templates to be used where appropriate; a bunch of technical artefacts to assist with expanding the current service offering; and of course training and knowledge sharing for my colleagues to ensure that everything I gained was paid forward and then some.

I truly believe that we all got lots out of this arrangement. I found a more than suitable person to fill my shoes and take the work to the next level when I left. And I received a very solid chance to start building my brand in the Tableau world and got to attend TC15 where I met EXASOL where I work now.

The now

And that brings me to today. 6 years out of university and working in a role that is the perfect fit for me. Literally, I have hit the jackpot.

I have a lot of freedom and that was daunting at first but I greatly appreciate it and I think it makes me even more determined to pick those projects and tasks that are right and aligned to our overall strategy.

6 years ago, at the end of the day I would often ask the question ‘is there anything else I can help you with today?’ Now that question doesn’t actually come up that much. Probably because our CEO whom I report to has very different topics to focus on than the project delivery work I was doing at the start of my career.

I still offer to help, but that looks different now. It’s either a matter of taking on a new idea that is proposed to me, or of coming up with my own idea and making it happen.

Over those past 6 years I think my attitude towards those around me has manifested itself and is now just a given. Yes, I aim to be nice to my fellow humans. Does that make me a push-over? Sometimes maybe. But I would say that me not ‘fighting back’ when a situation arises isn’t so much me backing down, but rather me taking a deep breath and getting a better ‘run up’.

My past few years of working have helped me understand my own competence and limits and I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of my strengths and weaknesses. When someone questions something I do, I prefer to prove them wrong rather than arguing a point. I know what I am capable of and I’m more than willing to show them.

Proving people wrong can take much longer to do but in my view is far more effective than getting into arguments which end up impacting our relationships with others.

I consider actions to not just speak louder than words, but to also be a kinder way to respond.

So what?

Okay, Eva, we know you like talking about yourself, but let’s get back to the topic. What about being nice? How does that help me and what does your work history have to do with it?

Well, what the last 6 years of working with skilled, talented and intelligent people has taught me is that our attitude towards and the way we treat those around us don’t just impact how our day goes. It also impacts the progress of our career. If you’re a nice person (kind, helpful, supportive, encouraging, compassionate, take your pick), people want you on their team.

This creates demand for not just your skillset but you as a person. Multiply this and you will see many interesting opportunities coming your way.

Going the extra mile may be very cliché but it works. Working to order and dropping everything at 5pm on the dot won’t see you excel in achieving your lofty ambitions. Working ourselves into the ground shouldn’t be the goal, no, but we need to realise that before someone offers us the next big gig, we need to prove to them that we can handle it. And by just doing what we’ve been asked to do in our current job, we don’t demonstrate to anyone that we’re capable of moving to the next level.

We can’t wait for the world to deliver our dreams on a silver platter. We have to go out there and make those dreams happen ourselves. And as long as other people are involved in those dreams, it is certainly a good policy to be a nice person…

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