Saturday, March 11, 2006

Paul Thomas: There's no good reason for such nice behaviour

Among the many paradoxes of our curious times is the fact that while we're constantly urged to "Have a nice day," many of the people we encounter in the daily round seem determined to ensure that we don't.

I need to be a little careful here. This newspaper was recently identified as the spiritual home of the grumpy middle-aged male columnist so I wouldn't want to get into a turf war or suffer by comparison with colleagues who've done the hard, grouchy yards and earned their curmudgeon status.

Besides, I'd like to think I've got a few more years of wary optimism in me. After all, aside from the various spectres hovering over us - bird flu pandemic, nuclear showdown, terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction and the meltdown of the ecosphere - the truth is, we've never had it so good.

Who better to start with than those who end every social interaction by chirping "Have a nice day"?

Why nice? Nice is bland, antiseptic, lukewarm; nice is what you fall back on when you're grasping for a word that conveys lack of enthusiasm without giving offence; nice is the last refuge of the chronically insincere.

There's a good reason why teenage boys groan inwardly whenever a girl tells them they're nice. It's the kiss-off, the high hat. It means that at a push she wouldn't mind having them as a friend but as for going out, forget it. It means she finds them boring and suspects that when it got down to the nitty-gritty, they probably wouldn't know what to do and, if they did, wouldn't have the nerve to do it.

Cliff Richard's nice and he's a 65-year-old virgin.

Then there are tradesmen and their radios. What is it with these guys? Why are they incapable of painting or building without having the radio on at an intrusive volume?

It's not as if they actually listen to it. It once took me five minutes to get it through to a builder working on the house next door that his radio was disturbing the entire neighbourhood. He couldn't make out what I was saying just as he couldn't hear his radio because he was wearing earplugs to drown out the noise of his electric saw.

And it's not as if their radios are ever tuned to the National programme. It's always a classic hits station with a horribly smarmy DJ, or talkback in full moon mode with morons roaring at each other like deaf men arguing over the words of a song.

Next come haircutters who think that you've come in for a chat, and they've really got the solution to the P epidemic or the traffic problem.

I recently had my hair cut by a lady from Vladivostok who finds houses in this country insufficiently warm and was agitated by the annual panic over water levels in the hydro lakes. In the hope of bringing the discussion to a swift conclusion I suggested the obvious answer was to go nuclear.

Instead that triggered a long wail about Chernobyl and nuclear submarines being left to rust in Vladivostok harbour. I thought of pointing out that New Zealand hasn't followed the Soviet Union's lead in many areas but presumably that's why she came here in the first place.

Taxi drivers, on the other hand, can talk all they like as far as I'm concerned. Whether it's because they're exposed to a wider cross-section of society or tend to be considerably less fey than your average hairdresser, I find taxi drivers provide useful insights into the mood of the nation, specifically which lunatic conspiracy theories are in vogue.

Clearly one can't undertake this sort of exercise without reference to television personalities.

For space reasons I'll confine myself to the sporting punditry: why is it that several of those who provide "expert" comment for rugby coverage that, as we're always told, goes out to half the known universe are hell-bent on portraying us as a nation of dimwits?

And if Richie Benaud with his dry understatement and deft economy with words is the doyen of cricket commentators, why don't ours ever shut up?

Rounding out this pests' gallery are the New Puritans who are offended by the sight of their fellow citizens enjoying themselves. These people have an alarming statistic for every pleasurable activity and seem to think that no one who requires hospitalisation or expensive medical treatment has ever paid tax.

They include the snoops and tell-tales who characterise harmless vulgarity or minor lapses of judgment in the workplace as wickedness that cannot go unpunished. So the cyber-circulation of an indiscreet message or bawdy joke or titillating image is deemed a crime that warrants public exposure, the modern equivalent of being put in the stocks.

Never mind that similar images are used to sell everything from deodorant to insurance on prime time TV, and the same salacious gossip and off-colour jokes are exchanged around the coffee machine. Never mind that people still do the crossword, paint their fingernails and make personal phone calls on company time.

When these people say "Have a nice day," they really mean it. They look forward to a time when we won't have any choice.

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