The Secret

My dad has a gift.

Opened packages of socks. Special order furniture. A worn, washed, and shrunken J. Crew sweater that was disclosed as worn, washed, and shrunken. You name it, the man has successfully returned it.

He routinely pulls off returns that most of us wouldn't dream of attempting. In fact, in the 35 years I have known him, the only item he's ever failed at returning was a Christmas gift box of nuts from Western Nut Company. Though occasionally frustrating to those who give him gifts, Dad's ability to exchange what he has for something he wants more -- another item, store credit, usually cash -- has long since held my respect and interest.

Initially, I figured that his incredible track record was mostly attributable to his height; being a tall drink of water doesn't help on airplanes, but it must help when you're trying to return something, right? 


I've since realized that Dad's success didn't have nearly as much to do with his height as it did with his personality. I've seen him in action -- he treats the store's employee with respect, smiles, and is never rude or angry or dismissive. He knows The Secret: if you're nice to people, they are much more likely to help you.

Now, we have to be careful here, because being nice to people is not a means to an end. Feigning interest and respect just to get what one wants is often transparent and annoying. Ideally, we are genuinely nice to people for the sake of being nice. Living this way pays dividends not just in terms of getting what you want, but also in happiness and friendship. That being said, there is no doubt that being nice to those around you will make them more willing to help you.

This widely-applicable principle is easily recognizable in the medical field. A physician taking care of patients in the hospital often receives messages from his patients' nurses. Although he may be busy, stressed by caring for his patients, documenting his care properly, declining reimbursement, home life, etc etc etc, if he is rude, dismissive, condescending, or abrupt with the nurse, although the nurse will still perform the necessary duties to care for their patients, he or she will undoubtedly remember the negative interaction and be much less likely to go the extra mile for that physician in the future. That feeling of being treated poorly doesn't go away easily.

By contrast, consider a surgeon who is frustrated from struggling to have her patient transported to the operating room from the hospital floor. She has a clinic she has to get to in the afternoon, and things are running late. She is tempted to call up the ward's nursing station and demand to know where her patient is. Instead, she calls the ward, and asks to know who is taking care of her patient. When she gets ahold of the right nurse, she uses his or her name, and thanks them for taking care of her patient. She asks politely about whether they will soon be ready to head to the operating room, instead of barking out a demand. She asks, sincerely, whether there is anything she can do to help.

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
— Maya Angelou

The nurse in the second situation is likely to remember being treated respectfully, and to respond favorably when the surgeon needs help in the future. The nurse in the first scenario, however, is much less likely to do so. Doctors who value other members of the team, including nurses, secretaries, schedulers, technicians, janitors, and others, who learn their names and act like a real human being around them, will be surprised not only by others' willingness to help, but by real, abiding friendships that will develop.

I'm grateful to my Dad for what he taught me about being nice to others. Maybe he wasn't just trying to return a pair of socks.