I USED TO BE nicer. There was a time when people who drove below the speed limit made me sigh instead of scream. A time when engaging in idle chitchat didn’t feel like swatting at a cloud of gnats. And a time when fads that wouldn’t go away were funny instead of infuriating. Thanks to my gentler mother, my childhood was cloaked in euphemisms. It wasn’t “cloudy,” it was “overcast.” People didn’t “sweat,” they “perspired.” The neighborhood eccentric was a “real character” and not a “complete and utter nutjob.” Being less blunt and less annoyed was once my M.O. But that was before the Kardashians and the “Keep Calm” posters and especially before 2014’s frozen yogurt pretended to be something different than 1986’s frozen yogurt.
It’s not that the glass is half empty, it’s just…the water tastes weird. I don’t when exactly I became such a critic, but I’m leaning toward that horrendous Seinfeld finale—and Michael Richard’s subsequent racist tirade— as the genesis of my disenchantment. Wait. I take that back. It was definitely Eric Clapton’s acoustic remake of “Layla.” That and Gywneth’s cookbooks. And also the 24-hour news cycle. Oh. And let’s not forget Taylor Swift.
Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: I’ve become quite the curmudgeon. But so has the rest of the country, right? I feel certain that if there were a real-time population clock that kept track of both the jerks and the genteel, the a-hole side would be rapidly clicking upward like our national debt (or new measles problem), while the good-guy side dwindled faster than Dorothy’s ruby-sanded hourglass.
The antagonists are everywhere: on the freeway, across the Internet, in the subways and shopping malls, behind pulpits and podiums, and especially all up in the comment thread. Wherever we tend to gather en masse, whether virtual or real, is where the vitriol comes out, and it’s a real shapeshifter. There’s hate speech and bullying, pundits and revenge porn, doxxing and road rage, as well as gun brandishers, slut shamers, the mommy wars, dads who strangle other dads at the baseball field, career-ending restaurant reviews, and people, like this guy—the worst of the absolute worst—who will someday pay Hell’s cover charge with his testicles.
About two years ago, our city got its first Trader Joe’s. Prior to its arrival, friends from coast to coast pumped me up for the grocery chain’s affordability and food that was, by and large, healthy and convenient and kid-friendly. Wait till you see how many different types of hummus they have! was a refrain that kept me sleepless for months. Name any food you like, one friend challenged, because rest assured Trader Joe’s has covered it in dark chocolate and macadamia nuts.
On opening day, with high expectations and a slim wallet, I barged into the store. As expected, I was taken with both the prices (five bucks for a laptop-sized container of fresh blueberries) and the choices (frozen gluten- and dairy-free homestyle pancakes)—to say nothing of the quirky Victorian-era illustrations and the bright tiki-style displays and the catchy thump of 1980’s pop. But what I also noticed, and what all my friends had somehow failed to mention, was how nice the people who work at Trader Joe’s are.
Like so super friendly, I started to wonder What are they on? and Where can I get some?
By the time I rounded the third aisle on my inaugural visit, the amount of grinning had reached the level of dental convention. I was unaccustomed to such resent-free helpfulness, much less people who were willing to openly hum along to Billy Ocean like openly humming along to Billy Ocean was acceptable. Where was the rub? And I didn’t mean some Thai spice blend for my free-range chicken—I meant: Why were they treating me this way unless they wanted something in return?
It was only a matter of minutes, I surmised, before I was cornered with a credit card application or asked to register for a frequent shopper program or to donate (just one dollar?) to a cause that made me feel terrible about my general well-being. But delightfully, eerily even, that never happened. At checkout, a cashier unloaded my cart, complimented my sweater, offered my children nearly two dozen stickers unprompted, handed me a free tulip, and then summoned another employee to take all of my bags to the car.
When I finally got home, I found myself extremely unnerved. It was as though someone had groped my cynicism without my consent. Straight up fondled my angst! No one’s THAT nice, I thought suspiciously. These people are aliens. Or in a cult. They’ve obviously been brainwashed. I couldn’t stop thinking about them—or the freeze-dried pineapple I’d devoured in the car. For the next few weeks, I went to Trader Joe’s religiously—not just for the food, but to marvel at what I was sure was either death threat-induced merriment or a major drug problem. By month’s end, to cope with the amount of unbounded optimism I’d been exposed to, I wrote a poem mocking the employees’ cheerfulness, titled “If Trader Joe Were A Funeral Director.”
People enjoyed it, because, like me, most of humanity no longer understands congeniality. We equate friendliness with falseness. We assume those who maintain any sort of warmth in today’s world aren’t worldly. They must be dumb or in denial. They MUST NOT KNOW how shitty things really are.
Why are we such a nation of bastards? Sociologists tend to blame technology and our decrease in human interaction. Psychologists might say our anger is displaced sadness and fear, and that all this rage began with the Industrial Age. Astrologers usually blame Saturn or Mercury retrograde or Geminis as a whole. Depending on who you ask, it could be vitamin D or Low T or Rand Paul or gluten. Personally, I think we’re less nice, because other humans have become less tolerable. Maddening, to be precise. We’re surrounded by masses that are indulged, inept, and inane. Of course, we are also indulged, inept, and inane, though—just like the guy who was texting at the movies who killed another guy because he was texting at the movies—we’ll never admit it. We’re a planet of hot-headed hypocrites.
Not that you asked, but here are my three lesser theories (that will probably make you angry) of why we act the way we do:
1. We’re Indulged
We, the selfie generation, cannot get enough of our own royalty. Take, for example, the monogram. What was once a symbol reserved for regal persons and their crowns and coins and waxen seals, is now EVERYWHERE. On lunchboxes, tie clips, design-your-own Chuck Taylors, luggage, engraved iPads, pillboxes, belt buckles, sheets, towels, and coffee mugs. Last year—true story—I ordered a book light online, and when I went to check out, a pop-up box asked me if I wanted to personalize it with a monogram. I repeat: I was earnestly asked if I would like to engrave a dandelion-sized book light WITH MY INITIALS.
If that won’t make you resent all of humanity, then congratulations on your canonization. But let’s get real. The pervasive monogram is a sign we all think we’re kings and queens. I’m special. I’m precious. My name has letters in it. I’m going to put those letters on my socks. I want to the world to know all about ME! Monograms are proof of our entrenched self-absorption and self-importance, the emblem of our self-portrait culture. No wonder we’re mean; we’re better than everyone else.
2. We’re Inept
I’ll be honest. I can’t start a fire without matches or a lighter. I have no idea how to filter water without buying an expensive water filter. Please don’t ask me how to pluck a chicken or disembowel a pig. Last year? I tried starting carrot seeds to no avail. I can’t hem pants without suffering a nervous breakdown. My idea of a shelter is leaning a piece of plywood against a fence. I’ve forgotten how to read a compass. My car is missing its spare tire. Sometimes I use a cotton ball and Scotch tape instead of a Band-Aid.
In summary, I can’t really be counted on to survive Armageddon, much less our next ice storm.
That’s not to say I can’t do anything. Why, I can take food that other people have grown and slaughtered and put it in a pan. I can turn on the faucet. I can complain about my memory foam mattress. I can do The Worm and go to the hospital. I know probably 60% of the lyrics to “Brass Monkey.” Also? Me write limericks.
My guess is that other modern-day people are also like this, whether they want to admit it or not. I’d also speculate that this alienation from our planet and how to live on it is making us cantankerous. Cavemen were actually much nicer than us cubicle people. I mean, it’s just a theory. I can’t prove that knowing how to trap and clean and cook a squirrel will make you more forgiving of people in the Macy’s parking lot, but nature does restore and humble us. It also kills off idiots. So, all you people with monogrammed socks should probably do more hiking. Here’s a map!
3. We’re Inane
There are an infinite number of examples of how completely ridiculous we’ve become. Limited Edition Watermelon Oreos are a good example. The “Female Evening Gown” Snuggie is another one. But Cupcake Wars is the ultimate. The fact that this has been a television show for almost four years actually makes me feel a little better about the new measles outbreak. In fact, if I ever run for president, I promise to do something about Cupcake Wars before I do something about the War in Afghanistan. Now there’s a surefire way to get elected!
This year, my New Year’s Resolution was to interview the nicest people I could find. I wanted to hear about what made them tick. I wanted to know what they thought about modern kindness and the human race as a whole and how they had compassion—even for people who were annoying as all hell. So, I began to make a list of the most pleasant individuals I could think of. It pretty much went something like this:
The Nicest People I Can Think Of:
- Mother Teresa
- The guy who carries the big question mark sign at Trader Joe’s
- The girl who’s usually offering the free samples at Trader Joe’s
- The wine guy at Trader Joe’s
- His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
- That girl at Trader Joe’s who helps me reach the eggs when I’m carrying my sleeping toddler
- Tom Hanks
I figured interviewing the Trader Joe’s folks would be easy, but it turns out these employees aren’t just cheerful, they’re also modest when asked point blank why they’re so nice. Finding workers who would talk openly to me about their job and attitude was difficult. I had to PULL the answers out of them. Finally, I tried to get some of them to talk by bribing them with the very chocolate they sell and consume for free, which I think made them feel either sorry for me or worried for their safety. Here’s what a select, anonymous few eventually said:
Me: Do you have an employee meeting every day where you psych yourself up for work?
TJ’s Employee #1: Yes. We meet every morning. We usually go over general notes and products and have a little wine tasting before the shift begins. We also have a meeting at the end of the day that involves a quick game and prizes.
Me: Like diamonds?
TJ’s Employee #1: No.
Me: How do customers respond to your cheerfulness?
TJ’s Employee #2: Customers generally respond well and are friendly in kind. We have many regular customers who come in multiple times a week, sometimes every day, to linger, have coffee samples, and chat with employees. That’s not to say we don’t have a few rude, unhappy shoppers who don’t respond well to our enthusiasm.
Me: I will kill them.
Me: What are some of your favorite ways to brighten someone’s day?
TJ’s Employee #3: There have been many times when a customer gets to the checkout line and realizes that they don’t have enough cash or that they accidentally left their credit card at home. I always tell them I’ll cover their purchase personally and pay for it myself. I just tell them to come pay me back later. Every single person comes back and pays. I’ve never had a customer not do so.
Me: Why are you so nice?
TJ’s Employee #4: I enjoy making people happy. I know that everyone is dealing with life challenges and bills and their health and work. Why not go out of my way to make their day brighter? It’s the least I can do.
Me: [Awash in crippling self-hatred.]
Of course, after a bit more prying, it turns out there are some practical reasons why TJ’s folks are happy. They are paid really well. They get excellent benefits. They get a humane amount of vacation time. They donate to food pantries. They support one another. High-level managers are expected to get down on the floor and wipe up a spill if they see it first. Now, some people may say that despite being very valued by the company, Trader Joe’s employees aren’t genuinely nice, they’re just putting on a show. They’re doing it because they get paid to. That they’re just trying not to get fired.
Well, I am here to tell you: I have studied these people. I am the Jane Goodall of Trader Joe’s workers. These people are the real deal. In short: if I want to commune with nature’s finest, I’ll go to Yosemite. If I want to commune with society’s finest, I’ll go to Trader Joe’s.
Isn’t a little anger necessary though? Isn’t is good we’re living in a world where we no longer sugar-coat our feelings and we feel free to speak our minds? Aren’t we better off being a little grouchy than “faking it till we make it?” Isn’t it better to be a dick than in denial?
I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong: I love outrageously frank humor. Few things make me laugh harder than dark, uncomfortable jokes. The excruciating one that Louis CK tells, masterfully somehow, about having sex with dead children in a cornfield is the most horrendous, most hilarious thing I have ever heard someone utter. So I appreciate the very irreverent. I like saying not-nice things and laughing at not-nice things because it makes the not-nice things of life easier to handle. It gives perspective. It lightens the load.
But maybe we’ve taken this sour, demented attitude outside the world of comedy (where we seek to make sense of the human experience), and out onto the highways and into the classrooms and embedded it into the World Wide Web where it just doesn’t work, where meanness has ceased to be farce and has instead become fury. Where it’s just not funny.
I do know this. The last time I went to Trader Joe’s, I passed the guy carrying the question mark sign six times. Every time I went down an aisle, there he was: smiling and eager for an inquiry. He wasn’t following me, we just kept crossing paths. It grew to be uncomfortable every time we maneuvered around each other. Isn’t he self-conscious? I thought. Surely, he’s going to have to make a snide comment at some point to break this awkward spell. But he didn’t. He just kept grinning, nodding at me, doing his duty with sheer glee. Him carrying that sign on his shoulder was like an upbeat version of Jesus bearing the cross. There was something sacrificial about it. He was doing it for the sake of all humanity!
On our final pass, as he hummed along to C&C Music Factory—like that was okay—I was suddenly humbled by an outpouring of love for this strange man, doing his strange job, with such strange contentment. There, by the plantain chips, with “Everybody Dance Now” blaring over the loudspeakers, I realized I DID, indeed, have a question for him, a burning one in fact, but I was too shy to ask. So, I will ask it now:
Will you show me the way?