During this election year, we have become so starved for civility that by the end of the second presidential debate Monday night, when a voter practically begged the candidates to come up with something positive to say about each other, America fairly groaned in relief. Donald Trump has said all manner of horrible, degrading things about all manner of people, and this week we have been subject to the worst of it—well, to date, anyway.
But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is Trump’s habit of calling others “not nice:” Hillary Clinton, most recently for using his hateful words against him in her campaign ads; Jeb Bush, who has endured constant mockery from Trump, for not taking his call after withdrawing from the race; even the UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, simply for not endorsing him. Laughable though this may seem coming from a grown man whose principal strategies include playground name-calling, bullying and threats of revenge — all in the name of “winning” — Trump’s “not nice” refrain has made me ferociously adamant about the fact that I take niceness seriously.
“The most important thing is to be nice.”
Difference and difficulty are inevitable in this world; what matters is how you handle yourself when you meet them.
I drill this into my 6-year-old son’s brain. Even at times when we seem to be making little headway, I want him to mount a resistance campaign against his less-generous nature. I want him to say please and thank you, and let someone else have the last slice of birthday cake. These little exchanges, as the anthropologist David Graeber writes, are “token[s] of a much larger philosophy, a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another.” If we dispose of these tokens altogether, we are dispensing with our common humanity. Politeness isn’t just empty architecture; it’s a way of ferrying our meanings and intentions back and forth without doing damage to one another.
Difference and difficulty are inevitable in this world; what matters is how you handle yourself when you meet them. Over the last few months, my family traveled together on a sabbatical. No matter what country we were in, the memorable things had to do with the kindness of strangers (and when you are going around the world in 80 days with two small children, you desperately need that kindness).
There was the young Dominican woman who shooed us into the pool on a blisteringly hot day, despite the fact that we’d run out of cash and her credit card machine was broken. The Italian shopkeeper who handed my sons lollipops in exchange for a sweet buon giorno. The Norwegian family who invited us to lunch at their home, ignoring the deafening screams of our toddler (they even offered to baby-sit). After two weeks in Japan, where people went out of their way to help us at every hostel, hiking trail and 7-Eleven, my main takeaway was this: I wanted to be nicer.
Niceness includes little generosities and helping hands, yes, but it goes beyond that to a larger sense of accommodation for others. When someone yells instead of speaking with courtesy, how do we feel? Broken, stressed, physically ill. Anger fires up the immune system, and not in a good way. When someone gives us the gift of listening and respect, in spite of a difference of opinion, we are comforted and left with a desire to treat others the same way.
In the thick of this election news cycle, we hold our candidates to a different standard. Politics skew toward polarity, valuing the fight. We want our candidates to be tough to get the win. In the context of a contest or a competition, niceness is often seen as a weakness — the mark of a loser.
But niceness is actually the harder thing — the tougher thing. It requires more thought, more heavy lifting, to communicate criticism without the barbs, to argue a point with restraint, to keep a dispute from escalating to an attack. I spent much of the two presidential debates sweating profusely in a state of fight-or-flight. My younger son, almost 4, after watching the second exchange for a while, observed that he didn’t like Trump much because “he’s not very nice to ladies.”
Knowing that this atmosphere of vitriol touches my children makes me even more defiant. I believe there is no domain in which the not-nice outlook makes sense. Trump repeatedly claims to be a “winner” in the world of business, but the true winners in that field seem to value decency more than he does.
Google, perhaps the winningest of all companies, spent several years trying to figure out what made its most productive teams so successful. Who tended to be the best workers, and how did they get that way? It turned out that success had less to do with specific individuals and more with how they treated each other. And the secret to how they treated each other was: that they went out of their way to be nice.
We all want to come out ahead. But we all want to be treated with respect, too — basic civility is part of the social compact of a community, of a country. And when this race is over, if the winner is someone who has no qualms about obliterating that compact, what will we have lost?
Bonnie Tsui is a writer based in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of “American Chinatown.”