When 'nice' is annoying

In striking up casual conversations, he unwittingly exasperates.

By

The big, thick garbageman paused for a second between breaths that were turning white in the stinging cold air. Then a familiar look filled his face. I interpreted it to mean something like: Shut up, you condescending fool.

I've gotten this look before from others: the bride-to-be, on a miserably cold and rainy day at a normally sunny resort, when I cheerfully offered something about outdoor weddings "not being all they are cracked up to be"; the tired grocery clerk who mumbled something about trying to put her long shift out of her mind just as I quizzed her about her sore feet on such a long, dreary day.

The Look expresses some combination of consternation and boiling rage. And pity.

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I should know better, having a complete portfolio of withering stares and humbling replies from people just trying to do their job in spite of me. This banter makes me feel magnanimous at first, but then I cringe afterward, my self-image slammed back and forth – at one moment Mother Teresa or the subject of my own nightly news feel-good story ... then a misguidedly self-congratulating Michael Scott of "The Office" or any number of buffoonish, pompous television sitcom characters.

Perhaps I'm hoping to let these people know that I'm so very comfortably in control of our little arrangement that I can be magnanimous – so there will be no excessive charge or spit in my salad. The firm but kind ruler. Or I may just want to develop a protective, informed relationship, like when someone repairs our furnace midwinter. Maybe – as I tell myself to bolster my ego when the response is not favorable – I'm "just trying to be nice" to a fellow human.

But motives here get pretty complex – this boundary between goodwill and self-congratulation. Sometimes no matter what the motive, folks really just don't care to hear it. And I suppose they deserve to check me on it – and rub it in.

The garbageman was a pleasant guy – I know that from previous encounters, though I always felt uneasy having him tote away the foul smelling stuff we discharged, and I often expressed excessive gratitude. Most days, though, I figured that if he minded his work he'd be doing something else – and I steered clear of the sort of thinking that caused Jerry Seinfeld, with his condescending chatter, to ruin Babu Bhatt's Pakistani restaurant.

But on this day I gave in.

"What's your load like today?" I asked him, standing in the bitter cold air. "Seems people throw out a lot of stuff on the worst days."

That familiar look crossed his face. But then it was replaced by the big, easy smile of a man who had eaten a good piece of pie or, in this case, had hit on the perfect response.

"Well, I'll tell you," he said, pausing for dramatic effect. "If it makes you feel better, instead of giving me your trash, why don't you take some of mine?"

I paused uncomfortably and laughed nervously. He allowed me all the time I needed to soak this all in.

A similar response came from a janitor one night at my children's school – suggesting, again, that this stuff can really get the creative juices going.

He was facing roving bands of overheated fundraising children and adults semi-trashing his school. We found ourselves standing in the hall for a minute together, and I heard him sigh and mutter.

"So, I guess this won't be an early night," I said.

The Look filled his face and an immeasurably long pause followed.

"You've got that right," he finally said, slipping away and shaking his head slowly, like a man finally distancing himself from a sloppy, off-color companion.

"Why don't you come by," he said over his shoulder, only half smiling. "I've got a broom with your name on it."

My son asked me how I got my name on the man's broom. I told him I thought the janitor was kidding.

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