Sometimes, those forced niceties we say to strangers can make someone who’s suffering feel even more alone.
There’s an old saying, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” The idea makes sense, and it fits well with the commonly accepted notion that social encounters between strangers, which occasionally involve transactions, can be (and should be) pleasantly greased by this faux friendliness. As my British friend once observed after staying in the U.S. for several weeks, “I’m desperate for a surly shop assistant.” She was overwhelmed by the extreme enthusiasm she was greeted with wherever she went: the gas station, the grocery store, at every restaurant.
I think the saying should be revised: “Smile and don’t say anything at all.” Instead, practice empathy and use your imagination. Remember Plato’s famous quote that “Everyone is fighting a hard battle.” For some people, that might mean a loved one is dying or has died; for another it might be the presence of a very prominent zit. There is no relativity in suffering; no ladder exists, but we are all walking around with some measure of it inside us.
I know the friendly shtick well, because during high school and college, I was the part-time assistant bra manager at a Victoria’s Secret store nestled within a so-called “high-end” mall in Denver. Our mantra at Vicky’s was “greet, guide, go.” Greet the customer with a chirpy “Hi there!” before guiding them to the item they requested and then moving on to the next customer. Sell, sell, sell…but be nice about it! Most of my time was spent with women in dressing rooms doing bra fittings, listening to sad litanies about how much they hated their bodies. I also hated my body, so I was careful to only give compliments and I diligently beavered away to find the most flattering fit from our selection of bras, which at the time, bore women’s names that were popular during the 1970s: Ashley, Courtney, Jennifer, Emily.
I sailed through these encounters, depressing as they often were, being super nice. I perfected a sing-song syrupy voice and a plastic smile. The only woman who didn’t say negative things about her body had just had a double mastectomy, and she said, clearly and matter-of-factly, “Just give me a simple push-up.” She didn’t want the smiling teenager in her flowered dress and retail-worker flats and fresh manicure (this last bit a requirement of the position) to parade a series of bras in front of her as if we were on “The Price Is Right.” She was just happy to be alive. I dropped the nice act and simply got her what she needed without ceremony. She was my most memorable—and favorite—customer during the four years I worked there.
Weirdly, I think about these saccharine interactions—with that one exception—each time I buy formula at Whole Foods and the cashier asks, “Oh, how old is your baby?” I never know how to answer this question. “He’s almost 3 but probably won’t get there?” When I asked a friend to buy sleeper pajamas for Ronan because the nose tube he has for hydration means he can no longer bear clothes pulled over his head, she said, “Well, someone is going to be snuggly.”
Of course these comments are made in the interest of being cheerful and engaging, qualities we’re taught to develop, especially as Americans, even if it’s false. But do they truly contribute to a sense of connection, or do they make those of us in difficult situations (which is, arguably, all of us) feel that much more alienated?
My good friend’s theory about what makes these comments so problematic is the fact that although they are made in the spirit of being friendly, they assume a normative experience. Nobody thinks you’re swanning into a lingerie store to buy comfortable pajamas for your friend going through chemo; if you’re buying baby food, the assumption seems to be that you have a happy, gurgling baby at home who is going to love every spoonful of those mushy, organic carrots.
In an essay by the late David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” he argues that what makes these transactional moments—the things people say (and think) in line, at the checkout counter, at the gas station—so disturbing in a profound but invisible way is that they are unconscious. In other words, we fail at empathy. We fail to imagine the stories people are living in their waking lives as they select produce or tie a string around a bag of bulk almonds, or wander into a store looking for a gift or a distraction.
Trying to decide whether or not to engage in this playful banter when a bomb has just gone off in your life, or on a particularly difficult grief day, makes me—and others, I believe—feel trapped at the very time when we most need and desire freedom. As Foster Wallace so brilliantly points out: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for then, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
This deep attention—which is a kind of empathy—is impossible to practice when we smile and carry on as if everyone is living the same life. I wish we could understand that sometimes saying nothing—nothing at all—is the deepest and most practical way of being “nice.”
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.