There’s a fine line between being nice and being a complete idiot

Life on Marsden

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The Independent Online

I've been trying a bit too hard to be nice, recently. The other day I was waiting at a bar, watching the staff wrestling with small pieces of paper, pencils and calculators because the electronic tills had broken. There was stress and frustration on both sides of the bar. One customer had the temerity to present a 20 per cent off voucher, causing an already fragile system to crash and burn. "Shit!" shouted the bar manager, his eyes bulging as he stared at his calculator. "Where's the per cent key on this thing?" he wailed, his brain a seething mass of half-remembered facts about beer, decimals and customer service training. The wait was interminable.

During all this, a couple arrived at the bar to my left and began watching this long-running show entitled "How To Multiply By 0.8". Finally the barman turned and said in my direction "OK, who's next?" and for some bizarre reason I gestured towards the couple, saying: "These people were before me." They looked surprised – as well they might, because they bloody weren't there before me – but they weren't going to turn down the opportunity of getting served first, so they ordered. I stood there, slightly confused by my own behaviour.

As we waited, I decided to broach the issue. "I'm not sure why I said that," I said to them. "Sorry?" replied the guy. "I mean, I said that you were before me, but you weren't," I said. They nodded. "It's like I'm compelled to gain the approval of total strangers," I said, their expressions betraying the fact that I'd failed to gain their approval and merely succeeded in gaining their mild contempt.

Sigh. Making a good impression is one thing, but I'd extended common courtesy into the realms of abject idiocy. It's a British caricature, isn't it – two people exiting a building and saying "no, after you" until they both perish from malnutrition – and I'd become precisely that. Next thing you know I'll be buying people two drinks each when it's my round, or letting so many cars past at a roundabout that traffic starts to become gridlocked in the area, or holding a door open for a woman, permanently, for about 15 years. So it's got to stop. Well, maybe not stop. "No More Mr Nice Guy" would be taking it too far. Maybe "Not Quite As Much Mr Nice Guy".