I am currently in that uncertain, awkward phase of getting to know A. After over a year of exchanging smiles, greetings and small talk when I ate lunch at her sushi place, after more than two months of negotiating schedules and postponing our first meeting three separate times, we finally got together for a coffee at Starbucks last Friday.
It's Christmastime, and I asked her to Starbucks to satisfy my curiosity about her life and background, so I brought a small gift for her to the meeting as a token of my appreciation for making time for me. It was a pen, special because it will write on almost anything in any position. I thought this would be useful to a waitress. Hers had a special finish. It came in a gift box. I gift-wrapped it and gave it to her at the close of our rendezvous at Starbucks.
We had a wonderful talk, three hours of mutual disclosure and sharing. She is from a foreign land, the only child of a single mother. English is a second language, she didn't study it seriously until she decided to immigrate to the United States. Hers is a fascinating story of courage, pluck, hard work and good fortune. I was happy to hear it.
I didn't ask her age, but I found out in our conversation that her mother is forty-five, nine years younger than I. Putting together various other chronologies from discussions of her education back home and time in the US, I would guess she is about twenty-five. We parted planning to see each other again. More discussion of our encounter belongs in another essay, this one is about the gift.
I had all but forgotten it last Tuesday when I texted her to wish her well on her winter holiday trip to California.
Me: Bon voyage! Have a good trip. Travel safe.
Oops, I should use better grammar. English is hard enough to learn without my bad examples.
A: Thank you Richard!)) I very like your present. Take care
I'm guessing the two parentheses were a mis-typed emoji.
Me: :-) Stay in touch.
Oh yeah, the present, cool that she likes it I thought to myself. I had almost forgotten about it. I got everything I wanted from it by just having a chance to give it to her. It was a bonus that she liked it. As with most of my immediate reactions in these situations, that was right on. It's a beautiful clear sunny day in my mind's train station, I have a nice seat on a comfortable bench.
Then the Doubt Express rolls in, bringing it's usual overcast skies and gloomy outlook.
So, I think to myself, she says "take care." Does that mean she's saying goodbye? She says she "very likes" the present, is that a way of pushing me away with feigned praise?
Wow, I then think to myself, that's a fucked-up notion. Why am I in this hand-basket and why is it getting warm? Why the doubt?
Because I do this. I push people away with fake praise and gratitude. I have no reason to think that A does this as well, I'm just reaching for messages from her because I'm in this early phase of getting to know her. I inadvertently reached into my own bag of dysfunction for a clue, temporarily mistaking my character flaws for insight into her possibly hidden motives.
I have no idea where our friendship is going. I don't even know that it's going anywhere. We had a nice talk. We both left wanting more. That's all I know. I've never been my age with friends her age. I don't have a script for this. I just liked her as a waitress and asked her to coffee. I hadn't thought about the next step because I wasn't sure we would get to this one.
Now that I am thinking about next steps, wondering what's going to happen now that we both seemed to have surprised ourselves with how much we enjoyed talking, I want some answers. Since I don't have a way to get any right now, I start making them up.
Being honest with myself about all this caused me to discover something new about what's wrong with white lies like "I LOVED your gift. It means so much to me" when the truth is otherwise. I've said things like this to people in the past just before I tossed their present in the re-gifting box while looking for something to give them in return, internally resolving to avoid them next Christmas.
I regard the white lie as the right thing to do since the sentiment I expressed spares the other person the possible embarrassment of knowing they failed to impress me with their gift, or worse, that I didn't want a gift from them in the first place. Besides, it was nice. It's always good to be nice, right?
It is the season for gift-giving, often to people we don't know well, often overlain with and obscured by the social norms of rank, privilege and authority. We give gifts to people whom we otherwise wouldn't spontaneously give a gift: bosses, employees, co-workers, distant relatives, in-laws, etc,.
We also buy bigger gifts for those people to whom we are accustomed to giving, perhaps after having saved money for it, or shopped extensively, or done some special research. With A, I also used Christmastime as an excuse to put a toe over a boundary between waitress and customer. This also happens.
All this makes gift-giving/receiving a high-risk, high-reward endeavor this time of year. Messages are sent with gifts. Some are received clearly, some not, some are missed. Some people lie.
It's bad enough that I have this people-pleasing habit because it makes me a phony. I am pushing people away with niceness, I am deliberately misleading them about who I am. That's clear and easy to see.
It is not so easy to see that this habit of being nice causes me to miss genuine messages from others. I wonder if they are just being nice to me instead of being genuine. Are they re-gifting my bauble? Are they rolling their eyes at the prospect of now having to give something to me when they had no plans to do so?
Assume the simplest explanation about A's reaction is true--she really likes the pen. She liked it so much that telling me that was the first thing she said to me after opening it. How cool is that? I get the bonus gift of finding out I guessed right about someone I'm getting to know. She is happy to have it, she wants me to know that. Awesome.
Instead, because of my habit of phony niceness to others in the past, I hop aboard the doubt train going to Loser-ville. What if she's a liar like I am?
That's the real cost of being nice, and it's why I'm trying to stamp niceness out of my life permanently. I want to be kind. I don't want to be a people-pleaser. I want to be known as someone who is direct and transparent. I want to see the directness and transparency in people around me clearly.
So, in these last few days of shopping before Christmas think about kindness versus niceness. Kindness belongs in Christmas. Find your Tiny Tim, bring him a Christmas goose. Otherwise, take the risk of respecting your genuine gift list. Don't give gifts to be nice.
When you give to be nice you're actually taking Christmas away, keeping Bob Cratchit late on Christmas Eve to line your own pockets. Please don't.
This Christmas be kind, forget niceness.