A Prescription for Success: Be Nice to Everyone

A Prescription for Success

Ask the security guard his name.  Compliment the neighbor you think you have nothing in common with.  Introduce yourself to the nanny that no one is talking to.

Of course, we all know that we should be nice to everyone.  But we get busy.  And stressed, and tired.  We feel we only have enough energy for being friendly to, well, our friends, and colleagues, and the people that matter, like bosses and teachers.  So we rush through our days, doing enough to get by and shooting a quick smile or a hello, without really making a connection or finding out who someone is.

One of my first lessons in the power of friendliness I learned at my first job out of college, and it didn’t come from my boss.  A friend from college, Chris, was working at the same non-profit in New York.  He had been at the organization longer than me and was a manager of a team.

Even though he was more important than me, he put a lot of energy into being friendly to even the lowliest people at the organization. When he went down to the mailroom, for example, he wouldn’t just whiz in, deal with his package, grab his office supplies, and get out. He took the time to find out people’s names, smile and say hello, and chit-chat a minute.

One day Chris needed to overnight an important document, but it was after-hours and the file room was locked. None of his peer co-workers had the key, but he had connections.  He called Manny in the mailroom who used his keys and goodwill towards Chris to get the job done.

If Chris has been the aloof executive, or the somewhat-snobby college grad like me, you can guess that his call would either have been answered with a, “Sorry, it’s too late,” or not answered at all.

Connections Go Both Up and Down

When someone says, “I can pull some strings,” we usually imagine a phone call to some fat cat with a cigar in a corner office. Yet there are a lot of people at the foundation of our society that have power. One could argue that they’re holding the whole thing up. They’re running our communication networks, delivering our mail, serving our food, fixing our houses and roads, keeping our neighborhoods safe, guarding our money, and caring for our children.

One of my favorite children’s books is The Little Blue Truck.  (Since my boys only want to read books about things with wheels, this story gets a lot of traction in our house.)  Little Blue is an old-fashioned pick-up who chugs through the countryside, slowing down to say hello to each of the animals along the way.   It starts raining, and suddenly a big dump truck barrels through, pushing everyone aside to get to his job in time. He gets stuck in the mud, but no one comes when he calls for help. But when the Little Blue Truck gets stuck too, all the animals come running to rescue him.

Being nice to everyone in the entire spectrum of our lives means we are strengthening our networks, building relationships, and spreading good will. And when we direct this energy to the people we see regularly in our communities — workplace, school, neighborhood — then we really have a chance to create bonds that will lead to tangible rewards.

Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom. –Theodore Rubin, psychiatrist and writer

Connecting Makes Us Happy

But being warm and open didn’t just mean that Chris could get things done without power or money.  He seemed happier.  His well-oiled social network made going to work a more fulfilling and fun experience.

As Gretchen Rubin discovered in her Happiness Project, “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

I’m a little shy, so going up to people I don’t know does not come naturally to me.  Over the years, l have learned to force myself to crawl out of my comfort zone.  If I can make someone smile, it makes me feel good about myself. I then get more positive energy that I want to share. It becomes an endless feedback loop of friendliness and mutual respect.

Sometimes we decide not to reach out to someone or invite them over because we’re too tired or not feeling well or our house is a mess.  Yet the irony is that connecting with people actually gives us energy, makes us forget about our aches and pains, and inspires us to whip our house into shape.

Perhaps this is because our deepest desires are to belong, to be loved and accepted by others, as Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly.  We need each other.  We are wired to connect, says Brown.

You Can’t Lose

If being friendly and open to everyone around us is natural and good, then why aren’t we all doing it?

In the old days, when cash was tight and communities were small and stable, people used to depend on each other for everything from harvesting crops to taking care of each other’s children.  Rural communities still function this way today.

But most of us live in cities and suburbs, and in this time of relative affluence, a lot of us can buy what we need.  Money weakens social ties by eliminating our dependence on others and crowding our spaces with material things.

Being nice to everyone is the right thing to do. But it’s also insurance against a rainy day. Because it will rain and we will get stuck in the mud.  We should prepare for the worst, yes, by keeping an emergency fund, but also by strengthening our relationships — all the way down to the mail carrier and the crossing guard.

People who have strong relationships are happier and live longer, says study after study. Loneliness can cause all sorts of problems, including deteriorating emotional and physical health.  Generous people have even been found to get more promotions and earn more money.

Maybe someone you reach out to will eventually help you get a job, recommend an inexpensive handyman, or lend you space heaters when your furnace goes out. Maybe someone you were nice to will rescue your cat, take care of your yard when you’re sick, give you a bag of hand-me-downs, or bring you groceries when you can’t walk. And you will do the same.

So many gods, so many creeds, So many paths that wind and wind, While just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs. -Ella Wheeler Wilcox, poet (1850-1919)

I continue to be touched by the kindness of strangers. The everyday generosity of people fills me up and inspires me to give more of myself. And that’s a contagion that I want to help spread.

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  • Terry April 2, 2014, 8:49 am

    I’ve always tried to be as friendly as possible to everyone I meet. There have been times where it seems to signal to the other person that they can take advantage of my kindness. Those are the times where you find out if your friendliness is genuine or not.

  • Ellen March 25, 2014, 8:07 pm

    Amen…saith she who needed help from a guy in the mailroom today…and was able to get cooperation, just by”being nice.”. All I did was to explain the situation, say I was new, and ask if anyone there would be willing to help out a newbie. I am planning to nominate “David” for Employee of the Month…..”

    • Amy March 26, 2014, 2:50 pm

      Hi Ellen,

      Oh, I love hearing these stories. It sounds like you have made a new ally, and have started a chain of helpfulness and giving. Yay, Ellen!


  • Vanessa March 20, 2014, 8:46 pm

    I like reading something that makes me feel good about life. And you’re right, this is an easy prescription for success. I have always admired people that possess this talent – genuinely making connections, no matter how small, with all of the people they interact with. Very often I find myself desiring to do this, and I hate to admit that sometimes I don’t follow through.

    It seems hard these days to make new friends. It takes reaching out and making yourself slightly vulnerable. And honestly that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. A friend of a friend -who I hardly know at all- invited me to go to an exercise class with her. Immediately I agreed. But later I had the thought, ” Wow, that was brave of her.” Seriously, I thought it was “brave” of someone to reach out and try to make a new friend?? That is kind of sad…

    Your post is a good reminder that it usually pays to make the extra effort to connect with people in all areas of life. Thank you.

    • Vanessa March 22, 2014, 11:27 pm

      I just happened to catch a commercial on tv, and it was promoting a campaign by Oprah and her magazine. They are calling it Just Say Hello and are using it on twitter. #justsayhello. Oprah was suggesting to make it a goal to speak to one new person every day. Just thought I would share since it fit perfectly with your post. :)

      • Amy March 24, 2014, 11:42 am

        Hi Vanessa,

        Thanks for pointing this out to me — it sounds right up my alley!

        Take care,

    • Amy March 24, 2014, 11:44 am

      Dear Vanessa,

      I know what you mean — being gregarious and open doesn’t always come naturally. And I always love it when some kind soul make the first gesture, like your friend. I find that it’s usually worth it to do something that seems hard — it almost always makes life better!

      All the best,

  • Nina March 19, 2014, 10:30 am

    You definitely can tell who is friendly around the work environment. There are some people who are just all smiles and so approachable, while others are more reserved. I’m sure those people don’t mean to be mean, but it is refreshing to run into someone friendly than someone who is just walking straight ahead with no eye contact.

    My problem is that, while I’m shy, I do try to be friendly but am turned off when it isn’t always reciprocated. I even try to pretend I’m one of those friendly guys who smile at everyone. I even wonder what they do when people don’t smile back. So that’s always my challenge; it’s easy to mirror other people’s moods, so that if I smile and they don’t smile back, it can make me sour as well.

    • Amy March 24, 2014, 11:54 am

      Hi Nina,

      Been there too. It is kind of confounding when people don’t reciprocate. I mean, how hard is it when someone else makes the first move? I tend to blame myself for everything, so I end up thinking: they must not like me for some reason. But I think it’s usually something inside that person that is bothering them. Either they are intensely preoccupied with something else, or they are not feeling good about themselves. If you can keep your spirits up and keep spreading sunshine, I think you will find (as I have) that eventually people come around and not only give you a big smile, but can become quite friendly.

      Spending a lot of energy on winning over an unfriendly person may not be not worth it, but trying to keep your spirits (and faith in people) up will always pay off.

      Take care and thanks for writing,

  • Sara Tetreault March 18, 2014, 6:31 pm

    Amy, of course I completely agree! When my kids were younger and learning to be kind to classmates I’d say, “It’s nice to be smart but it’s smart to be nice.” We place such value on accomplishing and getting ahead that we forget to be kind to one another.
    I do agree with Mary Lou that women need to exercise some caution in this department – and because I have a 15yo daughter who looks 22, we have many discussions about following your gut instinct. She’s learning…
    Well said, Amy! :)

    • Amy March 24, 2014, 11:58 am

      Hi Sara,

      I like your catchy saying! And I’ve been thinking more about the danger of young people and women being nice. It’s also a question of *where.* If you’re alone or in a group of singles, a friendly smile could be read the wrong way. But most neighborhood and workplace and women-only situations can lend themselves very well to this philosophy.

      Thanks, Sara!

  • Brenda D. March 18, 2014, 1:27 am

    This is so inspiring. I have talked to many nice people that were ready to help me at the IRS, other government agencys, billing departments, etc. It is our choice to choose to be kind. Kindness will return to us. We reap what we sow! These gestures are actually the ‘Golden Rule’ created by our God. Life is hard sometimes but we should never repay evil for evil.

    • Amy March 18, 2014, 10:43 am

      Dear Brenda,

      Totally agree. I think often hurtful acts are born of misunderstandings. It’s always worth it to be nice and try to figure out the problem by talking. Kindness almost always begets kindness.

      Take care,

  • Jen @ Jen Spends March 17, 2014, 4:10 pm


    This is a wonderful, inspiring, and beautifully written post. I had to pin it so I can refresh my memory when I’m feeling a little down. Approaching people I don’t know is definitely outside my normal comfort zone, but like you said, sometimes we need to push ourselves to do something that will ultimately make us feel better.

    When I was still working, I was a supervisor to two employees. The grandfather of one of them passed away, and I went to the calling hours. I didn’t think much of it — it just seemed liked the right thing to do (even so, I almost talked myself out of it). Years later, when the employee happened to meet my mom, he told her how much it meant to him that his boss came to the funeral home. That taught me a lot about how a small gesture can mean so much.


    • Amy March 17, 2014, 4:31 pm

      Dear Jen,

      Thank you for your sweet comment! I loved hearing the story about your employee’s grandfather. It’s touching to know how much small gestures of support can mean to someone.


  • Mary Lou March 17, 2014, 9:33 am

    It’s a good theory with caveats. Being smiley and friendly can give the impression of approachability and vulnerability and this can be a danger, especially to young people and women of all ages. Sorry, but I learned this as a young woman.

    • Amy March 17, 2014, 10:33 am

      Hi Mary Lou,

      You bring up a good point. It’s been a while since I’ve been a young woman, but I certainly remember friendliness being interpreted the wrong way. It’s important to be warm but also strong, and to pay attention to your gut instincts.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment,