The ultimate put-down - 'Sorry, you're too nice'

To its credit, frostburg, Md., does not live up to its name. There is apparently nothing frosty about many of the town's 8,100 residents, who are earning public praise these days for their friendliness.

But therein lies a problem, at least for one employer. Unitel Corp., a telemarketing firm that until now has employed about 100 Frostburg residents, is packing up its phones and customer lists and heading south - to Florida, where it hopes to find more aggressive salespeople.

What a strange, sad reason for losing a job: "Sorry, you're too nice." As Unitel vice president Ken Carmichael has explained, turning a compliment into a complaint, "The culture and the climate in western Maryland is one of helping your neighbor and being empathetic and those sorts of things."

Mayor John Bambacus defends his townspeople for "those sorts of things" by saying, "We would rather be nice than aggressive."

Yet Frostburg isn't the only place where being nice has fallen on hard times. The subject of niceness - or, more typically, not-niceness - is floating through the almost-spring air in a variety of ways these days.

In Haverstraw, N.Y., at least a few residents are defying tradition and common courtesy by installing stockade fences with the unfinished side facing their neighbors instead of their own yard. When the town board adopted a law last week banning the practice, one woman whose fence properly stands polished-side-out commented, "For niceness, and the property values, it should be the correct way."

To encourage niceness and greater civility on the road, Samuel Schwartz, a traffic consultant in New York, is proposing a friendly, apologetic hand signal for drivers to use when they inadvertently cut off another car. It would, he hopes, offset the rude middle-finger gesture many drivers use to express road rage. Mr. Schwartz's goodwill signal, called the Bowing Thumb Waggle, involves folding the thumb across the palm and holding up four fingers, palm side out, spreading the fingers slightly and waving gently. What a nice idea.

Many people still value the concept of niceness, of course, especially for children. Listen to mothers talking to quarreling toddlers who have not yet mastered the fine art of sharing a toy. "Be nice," they say gently. That same quality also becomes an ideal for children in December, when that mythical figure in a red suit supposedly makes his seasonal list, tallying who's naughty and who's nice.

But beyond childhood, the perception grows that being nice is a boring quality - wimpy and feminine. "Nice guys finish last," Leo Durocher famously observed. Little wonder, perhaps, that the new equality between the sexes encourages women to be as aggressive as men. No more Mr. Nice Guy - and no more Ms. Nice Gal, either.

The bad rap on niceness is hardly a new problem. Even in the 18th century, British novelist Oliver Goldsmith observed that his fellow countryman Edmund Burke was "too nice for a statesman."

But even contemporary statesmen and women, despite all their negative campaigning, recognize the value of a certain amount of nicety. In one hopeful sign of a turnaround in attitudes, last week more than 200 members of the House of Representatives gathered in Hershey, Pa., which bills itself as "The Sweetest Place on Earth," to practice being sweeter to each other. Planners hope the weekend civility retreat will help return good manners to those in Congress.

For them, as well as for all the rest of us, Wilson Mizner's advice still holds: "Be nice to people on your way up, because you'll meet them on your way down."

As Unitel hires a new, more aggressive staff in Florida, armed with all the best telemarketing tactics for keeping people on the phone - and buying - while their dinner gets cold, an outsider can only hope that the 100 displaced workers in Frostburg will find new employers who value their helpfulness, friendliness, and empathy.

Civility can be catching, even when customers say a firm "No" to the newly hired telemarketers. Perhaps any extra aggressiveness will be tempered by an innate politeness, prompting them to end the conversation with the polite sign-off: "Have a nice day."

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