I have written before about the power of simple courtesies. But it’s just so gosh-darned important. A little story to illustrate.
My father was an architect who worked for the Irish Government. I went to his office to get a lift home one afternoon when I was about 13 or 14. As instructed, I went around the side of the building to the car park and went in to meet him there (it was about 5.30 on a cold winter’s evening).

“You’ll be Rowan then,” came a voice out of the little guard hut by the entrance to the car-park. “Your dad said you’d be joining us and he’s just rung down to say he’ll be delayed for a few minutes. Why don’t you come on in here and get out of that cold?”

The speaker was a slight and somewhat stooped gentleman who was sitting in the hut. I went over to him. “I’m Bobby,” he said, extending his hand. “Mmmm,” he said approvingly. “Nice firm handshake, just like your dad.” In the ensuing chat, I discovered some things about my father that have stayed with me to this day.

Bobby was the gateman on the car-park of a mid-sized public service department. His job was to raise the bar to let cars in and out, assign guest parking places to visitors attending meetings and to keep the car parking area spick and span. Simple work. Thankless work. Largely invisible work. Bobby was a very decent, plain-spoken man with twinkling eyes and a ready smile. And everyone ignored him.

Except Pop.

Bobby told me that my father never failed to stop his car as he was entering and leaving the car-park to have a quick word. He told me that my father had noticed (with his architect’s eye) that the electrics in Bobby’s shed were acting up and that he had organised for Maintenance to remedy this and for Purchasing to replace Bobby’s wonky little infra-red heater with one that worked properly.

Over the years, Pop had learned about Bobby’s family, his children and his grandchildren and Bobby, obviously, had learned all about my family. A short while into their relationship (Bobby had been the gateman for 25 years), Bobby started asking my father for the keys to his car every now and then and when Pop would come down from his office in the evening, he would find that his car had been washed, or the tyres pumped, or the interior vacuumed.

Pop always got a Christmas and birthday present for Bobby, along with a card. Occasionally, he would bring a packet of nice biscuits in for Bobby to enjoy on his tea break. Little gestures. Tiny gestures. But not to Bobby. Because, it seemed, almost everyone else who used the car park would incline their head, or smile, as they entered and left; but none of them stopped to have a little chat. Just a few moments; I’m sure it cost my father almost no thought. But it mattered the world to Bobby.

I saw and chatted with Bobby a handful of times over the next few years and then I went to College which was in another part of the city and my father retired. The last time I saw Bobby was about 15 years after our first meeting – at my father’s funeral. He remarked again on the firmness of my handshake and said some very nice words, now forgotten, about Pop.

Pop did this wherever he went. He was an intensely private man, a somewhat shy and introverted man, but he never allowed that make him rude. He would always have a smile and a cordial greeting when we went into shops. He always had a fun and pleasant word to share with my friends. Everyone liked Pop. Because he was just so nice. He wasn’t the life and soul of the party (although he was a great hoofer), he wasn’t the one standing on a chair regaling the assembly with his stories. He was just decent. And everyone liked, or loved, him for it.

Why? Because even back then, in a gentler time, Pop’s behaviour was a little unusual and, more importantly, because his behaviour was authentic. His behaviour had its advantages – Pop always seemed to get good service in shops and people didn’t seem to mind putting themselves out a little for him – but I really don’t think that there was anything manipulative or opportunisitic behind his way of dealing with people. I’ve certainly witnessed lots of people over the years who store information on colleagues and bosses so they can drop the, “Gosh, isn’t little Timmy getting so big? What is he, 10 now? Of course – his birthday is in a few weeks isn’t it?” And it rarely rings true, because it rarely is. Being nice to people to get something out of them is part of our nature and part of our upbringing. Being nice to people just to be nice … just to make your little corner of the world a little more pleasant?

So try it. Try being really interested in people. Try being really pleasant to people. Avoid the slimy, obvious and manipulative stuff. Just be a little nicer. Particularly to the people who do the largely invisible work around you.