The world-famous primatologist discusses her new book, which is back on shelves after some controversy.
Comedian George Carlin once said the word “nice” was weak and without character. And in 2011 a journalist in Publisher’s Weekly was quoted as saying, “If you want to say nothing in the most efficient way possible, just say something is ‘nice.’”
But author Josh Chetwynd thinks “nice” has gotten a bad rap. In his new book, ”The Book of Nice: A Nice Book About Nice Things for Nice People,” he writes that nice gestures can be “powerful shorthand for the virtues we consider important.”
He has collected stories behind those nice gestures in his new book. For example, did you know that in Roman times, people waved togas to express their appreciation of a good performance? Chetwynd also writes that Thomas Edison is responsible for the fact that we say “Hello” when we greet each other.
For decades, the sight of a chocolate mint on a perfectly white puffy pillow at bedtime was a sure sign that a hotel was certified fancy. Considering the pillow mint’s original high-class connotations, it makes sense that the tradition is credited to one of the most suave and debonair actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Enter Cary Grant. On a trip through St. Louis in the 1950s, he wanted to add a sugary dash of romance to a liaison at the local Mayfair Hotel. Although he was married to actress Betsy Drake at the time, Grant had another, ahem, friend lined up. He allegedly fashioned a trail of chocolates, leading from his penthouse suite’s sitting room into the bedroom before ending up on his pillow. Along with the chocolate was a letter. Unfortunately the contents of his note were lost to time (though somehow I doubt it said, “Compliments of C. Grant: Have a restful sleep”).
The manager on duty caught wind of Grant’s ploy and, though discreet about its provenance, started the regular practice of leaving a nighttime chocolate on guests’ pillows. You may not think of St. Louis as the arbiter of up-scale offerings, but at the time the Mayfair did have an air of sophistication. Famous guests in this era included presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson and composer Irving Berlin. The Mayfair also prided itself on trend setting, being the first hotel west of the Mississippi to boast a rooftop swimming pool.
Whether the Mayfair’s high-end patrons spread the word about the hotel’s chocolate touch or other hotels simply caught wind of it, the practice spread. One business to capitalize on the trend was the Andes Candies company. In 1950, the confectioner stepped in with just the right chocolate mint—small, rectangular, and wrapped in distinctive bright green foil—at just the right moment.
Sadly, trends change and the chocolate mint is no longer a compulsory offering at posh hotels. With many diet-conscious guests (one estimate claimed that a hotel mint a week could add 11⁄2 pounds to the waistline in a year), some in the industry figured a less weighty option might keep the chocolate tradition alive. In 2004, Sheraton Hotels launched a low-carb mint for its pillows. But not long after, most chic spots decided to just ditch the chocolate treat.
“The chocolate has become commodified,” Ross Klein, president of W Hotels Worldwide, told The New York Times in 2005. “You can buy it in bulk. And the low-carb trend has made it not such a treat.”
Even the Mayfair no longer provides mints. Still, the hotel’s eighteenth floor does have a Cary Grant suite in honor of the actor and, presumably, his tasty affair.
Nice just doesn’t get the love. Few sentiments are so seemingly positive yet receive so much criticism.
“If you ever want to say nothing in the most efficient way possible, just say something is ‘nice,’” a journalist at Publishers Weekly griped in 2011. “No other word ostensibly expresses contentment and acceptance while also harboring 14 (approximate) subterranean shades of doubt and pessimism.”
Back in the 1980s, legendary funnyman George Carlin was more succinct in explaining his anti-nice stance on the phrase “Have a nice day.” “I know what it is that bothers me about the whole thing,” he said. “It’s the word nice. It is just a weak word. It doesn’t have a lot of character.”
Nice deserves better. When nice gestures, words or images are executed with proper meaning (and accepted as such), they can be powerful shorthand for many of the virtues we consider important. If you want to convey a significant feeling like respect, love, generosity, inclusiveness or reassurance, nice has your back. For example, it’s hard to beat a friendly hug as a (non-lusty) sign of affection—and depending on the occasion, there are numerous other options like presenting a box of chocolates, or singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” If you’d like to give a little respect, you’ve got a hat-tip at your disposal. Then there’s a wink, which can be deployed when you’d like to tell someone you’re on the same page. And conjuring up the Tooth Fairy certainly takes away some of the sting of losing a tooth.
There’s actually scientific proof to support the medicinal value of giving and accepting nice behavior. Studies have shown hand-holding—even clasping a stranger’s hand—can calm an individual in a particularly stressful moment. A well-received compliment stimulates the brain in a positive way and, according to some studies, slurping up a bowl of chicken noodle soup from Grandma does indeed make a difference in your health.
And, lest you think nice guys finish last, consider this: One of America’s first great department store magnates, J. C. Penney, believed treating others nicely was so important, he named his original shop (and the thirty-three that would follow it) the Golden Rule Store. If you want something a little more empirical, a group of researchers at the University of North Carolina once calculated that not being nice (i.e., acting rude) in the workplace costs companies a lot of money (in some cases,
billions of dollars) annually in, among other things, lost productivity.
But at the same time nice isn’t a naive concept. It’s complicated. Let’s start with the word itself. The term wasn’t always a good thing. Nice originally stemmed from the Latin word nescius,
meaning “ignorant,” and in early French and English cultures acting nice meant “being foolish.” It eventually morphed into meaning “shy” and then “fastidious and refined” before, in the second half of the eighteenth century, it reached its current
primary definition—“pleasant, agreeable, or kind.” Yet some modern dictionaries have as many as seventeen different explanations for what nice can mean (including such options as “suitable or proper” and “finicky or fussy tastes.”) All this leaves some bewildered as to what they’re really saying.
Actions that are characterized as nice aren’t any simpler. Many traditions discussed in this book took time to earn nice status and feature compelling twists. For instance, the phrase “bless you” was developed by a nervous Pope during an ancient plague; the saying “eat, drink, and be merry” was originally a cautionary statement; and the literary ancestors of fairy godmothers ruined a person’s future as often as they granted his or her wishes. Even the story behind slapping hands up top (aka the high five) is full of disagreement and heartbreak.
These complexities sometimes make it hard to identify nice. Nice deeds can often move on or off the list based on shifts in popular culture. Take opening a door for a lady. In polite society, it was a no-brainer a couple of generations ago. Now there are those who find it sexist and believe that rather than nice, it’s a patronizing action. On the other hand, a few decades ago hand writing a letter to a friend wouldn’t have been seen as nice—it was simply a way in which we interacted. But before long—if not already—email, texting, social media, and other more advanced forms of communication will make the handwritten letter more of a quaint nicety than a necessary task. (It didn’t make it into this book, but if there’s a sequel it might be a good candidate.)
Another problem nice faces is cynicism. A key component of nice behavior is sincerity. If you’re told you look beautiful, the impact of that statement hinges on whether the speaker truly means it (or the recipient, genuinely believes it); If the words are sincere then it’s a compliment, but if they’re not, it’s hollow flattery or, worse, a form of ridicule. A wink suffers from the same uncertainty. It can be a sweet gesture or it can come off as lecherous. It all depends on context and intentions.
There are many who like to tweak what would normally be nice behavior in negative ways (like offering a healthy serving of sarcasm with a “thank-you” or mockingly applauding another). Those disingenuous moments leave some ill-equipped to assume the best in others. Alternatively, nice behavior is often considered synonymous with manners, which are perceived as something you go through the motions doing without any real meaning. (Applied properly, the intention of manners has long been to give legitimate signs of regard or deference to others.) The upshot is many folks recoil at seemingly nice acts, turned off by the uncertainty of it all.
If I’ve done my job well, you’ll discover examples and discussion of these themes embedded in the following pages and, maybe, this book will even cut through some of the vagueness at the root of nice. But, more than anything, my hope is you’ll find this a fun read featuring the colorful origins and backgrounds of what we identify as all things nice.
While this book aims to be comprehensive, it isn’t exhaustive. There were some things on the edge of nice that just didn’t have enough unanimity to make the cut here. Moreover, nice is driven by local traditions. For example, in Japan bowing has very different rules and connotations than in the U.S. Recognizing that, this book primarily focuses on the niceties of the Western world (and even more specifically those of English-speaking folks) because I wanted to highlight what would be most relevant to the majority of this volume’s readers. Nevertheless, where appropriate I’ve pointed out contrasts or similarities from elsewhere around the globe.
Finally, I must admit I’ve got a soft side. So if in the end, learning the history of charity, smiling, or saying “please” (or any other nice moves) leads to a little more fondness for the concept or inspires you to put a bit of nice into practice, well then, all the better.
Excerpted from “The Book of Nice: A Nice Book About Nice Things for Nice People,” by Josh Chetwynd. Copyright (c) 2012 by Josh Chetwynd.