There’s a well known saying, “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that idea, but it doesn’t quite sit squarely with me. Because implicit within that phrase is the notion that a key motivation for being nice to people when you don’t need them, is that one day you might. Keeping someone buttered up isn’t being “nice”. Is it?
I remember very clearly my fifth role on Shortland Street. I’d been a featured extra four times, and this was my first time in a guest role. A guest role on the show is (or at least was) when your part has over 30 words of dialogue. We were on location, and when lunch was served a member of the crew with a headset and a black puffer vest announced on no uncertain terms that core cast and guest roles were to eat first – extras (even the featured amongst them) would have to wait. As I reached in towards a banana, she tapped me on the shoulder (completely oblivious to my status) and reiterated the instruction. I ignored her – and if I’m completely honest, I was willing a showdown. She was not standing for insubordination for one second, “EXCUSE ME – I told you to WAIT – this table is for guest actors and core cast.” Before I could irritate her further with my silent obstinacy, Dr Warner had defused the situation by telling her that I was the Court Registrar.
A similar situation arose a few years later when I played the role of Jailer on Legend of the Seeker. This time it was well known that I was a guest actor, because I was allocated a canvas deck chair in an air-conditioned tent with the female American lead. I really felt that I’d taken a step up in the acting world, even if she refused to talk to me. Even so, lunchtime still brought about the same conundrum. But this time it wasn’t when I could eat, but when the Jailer’s marshals could. Extras they were, but a morning of jailing is hungry work and I wasn’t going to leave my men.
Years on, as a manager within in a large Australian financial services corporation of over 3,000 people, I find myself in the elevator with the CEO and a number of his Executive team. One mighty entourage alright, and there is a palpable air of amiable decorum mixed with nervousness from those in the lift of lower rank, including myself. The doors are almost ready to close when the lady that cleans and restocks the coffee machines approaches the lift with her trolley. “We’re very full” I thought, “please look who’s in here and get the next one”. I’m sure we all thought that. Except for at least one person. As the elevator doors began to close on her, a four buttoned charcoal suit sleeve extended outwards, and a gentle yet assured voice beckoned “Come in Maureen”, gesturing for the group to make way. After the doors closed the Chief Executive Officer continued, “how was your holiday to Cairns?”. “Oh wonderful thank-you”. “And your husband’s recovering well from the procedure”. “He certainly is, thanks so much for asking” she beamed. I learnt a lot about what true leader is in that lift that morning, and a lot about what being of high status is really truly about. I also felt a little ashamed of myself.
I continued to reflect on that experience as I sat down at my desk, and very quickly, I recalled a story I’d heard from a friend who works in foreign affairs, of a diplomat. This man was of incredibly high status, acting as a western ambassador to a poorer nation. He was learned, powerful and was bestowed all of the privileges that come with that; the diplomatic residence; the personal driver; the chef and the butler. One night, a member of local community wished to speak with him, and showing his usual grace, the Ambassador invited him up to the residence for dinner, and to discuss the gentleman’s concerns. Prawns were the chef’s appetiser de jour and the first course was a messy one. As such, the Ambassador’s butler brought each man out a finger bowl of warm water and a citrus wedge to accompany the entrée. The local man was not used to this type of dining at all. In fact, it was likely that very few in his country would have been. It was evident in the way he chose his cutlery, and in the way he lodged the napkin in his shirt. But most particularly, it was evident in the way he picked up the finger bowl and began to drink it.
What do you think most regular fine diners would do in that situation? Stifle a smurk? Raise an eye to another at the table? Not the Ambassador. His butler must have silently smiled with the same admiration that I did in the lift that morning, when ten minutes later he cleared two empty bowls, with the reluctant feedback from his superior that the “lemon soup” could do with a bit more flavour next time.
Being nice to people on your way up because you might meet them on the way down is strategic. Being kind to someone because you care for their dignity is pure class.