Project Nice

Project Nice started as a personal inside joke, a way to stay sane while I adjusted to British culture. I'm Southern, and when I first moved over there the reserve baffled me (nine years later only my friends knew I was American so I did adapt).

They don't make eye contact, and the social structure was at the time rather rigid. Even by the time I left, when it felt more relaxed, they are still more aware of "one's place" than we would ever be.

I also spent most of my time in London, which is like any big city and has a lot of people in a hurry and a zillion different cultures.

So people didn't have those five minute interactions that we have in the South - the check-out lady doesn't expect to hear what you're doing there and she won't ask about the kid you have with you, for example. The ticket guy on the train won't smile or say hi. The security guards don't make eye contact in office buildings. It went on and on - people who rode the same train into work didn't even acknowledge each other.

Belles don't play that.

So, I admit partly my idea for Project Nice was my impish sense of humor - it is just TOO much fun to make British people squirm. They get uncomfortable so, so easily (I'm generalizing, I know). The men are worse than the women, except for that nitwit who decided to use my pregnancy bump as an elbow rest while he read his paper on the train and was frightfully offended when the baby kicked him away.

I started with the easy targets - the non-Brits. I said hi to Indian clerks at my news agent. I said hi to the people at my favorite Turkish fish and chip shop, to the guy at the take-out Indian restaurant. I said hi to our security guards at Citigroup, who were a variety of things but not British. That was fun. They started recognizing me within days, the Woman Who Says Hi.

The Brits were trickier so I started with the mail guy and people who were in service professions. I figured, Brits are never going to bother being nice to people who are doing things like delivering the mail because of the reserve plus the pecking order.

Only when I got over my own embarrassment did I try for the actual Brits - chattering in check out lines and stuff that a Southern woman totally takes for granted. What else are y'all going to do while y'all are waiting in line? That was when it got fun! The squirms! But what was amazing and actually rather cool...they did talk eventually. Once they got over looking to see if I was an escapee from a mental institution, or dangerous, they actually did talk. Without even looking to see what others around them were thinking. Amazing.

New Yorkers can be a little bit like that too, so I have continued after re-patriating. An awful lot of New Yorkers, though, can also be very friendly. That has been the fun surprise - my stereotype was just that, and a lot of the time it's wrong. Isn't that great news?

What has been the best part of this - I've noticed how rarely people bother with clerks, cleaners, guards, and those in service professions here too. It's nice but it's also uncomfortable how much one person paying attention is appreciated - I would be happier if me saying hi was nothing out of the ordinary, if I were a sea of people who cared about the woman who just sold me a seltzer's day, and how she was going.

I get the feeling that isn't the case.

I'm so glad to brighten some one's day by taking the two seconds it takes to greet him or her, and be polite and friendly. I'm certainly not any nicer than the next person (probably a lot less nice than many!). But I wish some of THOSE nice people would also take a bit of time and appreciate all the people swirling around them. It's a big city. People get lost.

In a small town - it was more of a stretch to escape everyone's notice, especially the nosy grandma next door with the binoculars and rockig chair. I guess some people like that part of a big city, and when I'm in a hurry I do too.

But I've learned to value that the seltzer store lady knows me, and smiles when I come in, and the guy herding us onto the bus and the guard outside our cafeteria. They're nice people, and I think they deserve some of my time. I appreciate what they do.

It's not even really a project anymore, or a prank - but it was a great experiment. If you're in a big city and you're feeling a little overwhelmed, I can heartily recommend your own Project Nice. 

Jennifer Z.

Blogging here at http://www.blogher.com/member/jenniferz 

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