‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word’: We Need Nice People for Nasty Times

Passersby by Lantian D

Passersby by Lantian D

At the gym the bloke with the next locker silently moves his kit out of my way without looking up at me. At the shop a woman talks on her mobile as she pays. Down the pub a guy checks his phone as he pisses. A man on a bike shouts at me as he turns a corner. Someone’s eating a bacon sandwich on the tube. He’s sat next to a ‘manspreader.’ There are kids cursing on the top deck of the bus. There’s pizza packaging on the pavement. Queueing seems to be the hardest concept. And sorry seems to be the hardest word.

‘What do I do to make you want me?
What have I got to do to be heard?
What do I do when it’s all over,
And sorry seems to be the hardest word?

It’s sad, so sad.
It’s a sad, sad situation.
And it’s getting more and more absurd.

‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,’ Elton John (Elton John & Bernie Taupin)

Of course, I’m just a grumpy old man. And I live in London. But it seems sometimes that we’ve lost our sense of civic pride; of community; of togetherness. We’re all sharp elbows and hard stares; hoodies and headphones. We’ve become anti-social media addicts, selfie narcissists, smartphone lemmings. Oh, for the cordial and considerate, the kind and courteous. Oh, for the gentle smile, the nod of recognition, the quiet word. If only we could remember that shyness is nice; politeness is precious; and ‘manners maketh man.’

It seems to me we need nice people for nasty times.

To get a job at my former Agency, BBH, it was stipulated that you had to be ‘good and nice.’ This was an elegantly simple recruitment policy. And critically it recognized that an employee’s impact on culture is as important as his or her impact on clients - because culture builds companies; and the foundations of culture are day-to-day civility, mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

I particularly like the use of the word ‘nice’ in this context. It sounds soft. It suggests the candidate must be gentle and genial, amiable and agreeable. ‘Nice’ seems alien to the hard-nosed, cut-throat world of commerce. Surely ‘nice guys finish last.’ But, on the contrary, today’s networked age is all about team, partnership, collaboration and cooperation. Empathy, emotional intelligence and listening skills are commercially critical. We need to get along if we want to get on. Nowadays nice guys finish first.

Perhaps marketers too should be mindful of ‘nice.’ So many modern brands celebrate their high-minded Purpose. They’re ‘passionate’ about people and the planet; ‘in love’ with customers and the category. They’re ‘fanatical’ about good service. But maybe they should calm down a bit. I don’t want my brands to be passionate or fanatical; I’d rather they were polite and well mannered. I don’t want my brands to love me; I just want them to be nice.

I was once given a signed copy of Harry Redknapp‘s autobiography. The erstwhile West Ham player and manager was a wily tactician and loveable rogue. He had signed the book with a simple message for me: ‘Nice one!’


‘What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give,
Or are we meant to be kind?’

Alfie, Dionne Warwick (Burt Bacharach, Hal David)

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