Politeness: Surfing the Curve for Fun and Profit

Not known for politeness
How would you like dealing with asses all day?

As many current and former university students (myself included) will tell you, you don’t have to be smart to succeed in university, you just have to be smarter that the other students in your class. This is called surfing the curve, because regardless of how bad you may be in an absolute sense, as long as you’re good in a relative sense, you should be OK; if you’re above average, you’re pretty much guaranteed to pass and continue on to the next course. Curve surfers benefit from other students’ lack of attention, attendance, and interest in class; it’s not that they’re particularly bright, it’s just that they’re less dumb than the others. A cynical philosophy, it’s true, but not at all uncommon.

I was reminded this weekend that the same principle applies to politeness, and the result can put money in your pocket.

Just over a week ago, I took my car in to a local chain garage. They did a quick and cheap fix on my brakes, and told me everything was OK. I paid the bill and off I went.

A week later, driving back from the airport, my van didn’t feel right. When I pulled into the garage at home, I went around and looked at the brakes that had been worked on the previous week. The rotor was literally (unlike many people these days, I use this word correctly) red hot. It was glowing. Light was emanating from it.

I had been worried that I had gotten off too quickly and cheaply last week, so I can’t say I was surprised that this happened. I waited until the garage opened, and went back, taking my previous receipt with me.

A younger me would probably have been a lot more abrasive than I was that morning. (I don’t normally rant and rave, but I can be very direct and bitingly sarcastic.) Instead, I simply explained the problem, pointing out that it looked to me like it was the same problem as the previous week. After they looked at the car, I was given an estimate of just under $400 to fix the current problem. Un-thrilled, I pointed out that this seemed to be the same problem that I had been in for previously, and asked if they could take that into consideration. After a few clicks on the computer, the price went down to around $300. I just let that number hang in the air for about 15 seconds, and then asked if that was really the best they could do. The price eventually came down to  just over $200. In other words, the cost was halved by a bit of tact and a few simple statements and questions on my part.

You may be thinking to yourself that I still got ripped off, because much of the damage was because the garage screwed up in the first place. Yes, they did, but a) there was no real way to prove (in any legally helpful way) that it was their fault, b) the fact is, even though it was the “right” thing to do, they didn’t have to lower their price c) the fact of the matter is, I needed my van fixed, and it was going to cost money. If I had taken it anywhere else, I would have had to pay full price. My only hope of getting a break was at the original garage, d) any way you slice it, an almost 50% discount is a pretty good deal, and e) I now have new brakes. (Some of the cost was for replacing the damaged parts, and some was for the work that “should” have been done the week before.)

In the words of Bill Cosby,

I told you that story so I could tell you this story:

Over the course of the almost seven hours it took to get my car fixed (the above is a highly-abbreviated version of events) there was no shortage of times that I could have lost my temper. (And I have to admit, in hindsight, I’m a little surprised I didn’t.) The upshot, however, is that I have new brakes that I got for a reasonable price, a promise (in the form of a written quote) of some very reasonably priced tires that I already knew I needed, and a “Just ask for me, and I’ll make sure you’re taken care of” from the assistant manager at the garage. Not being mechanically inclined myself, that promise of personalized care is worth a lot to me.

Here – finally – is the point: I really didn’t do anything extraordinary. All I did was keep control of my temper when a lot of people would have lost theirs. Demonstrating simple politeness was all that I did. The result is a deal on work I needed to have done, a deal on a new set of tires, and a promise (that I believe) that I’ll be taken care of in the future.

I didn’t do anything special; all I did was not be an ass when a lot of people would have been. These days, not being a jerk is sometimes all you need to do come out ahead. Even if only for the money you may save, surfing the politeness curve is a good idea. Your grandmother would agree, I’m sure.

2 thoughts on “Politeness: Surfing the Curve for Fun and Profit”

  1. I agree with you, you’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I’m surprised how many people haven’t learned that, even well into adulthood. My workplace is a prime example. Every department has its own agenda and can be known to cause problems for other departments rather than cooperate for the greater good of the University. By actively listening and understanding the needs of each of the department managers I’m able to get things done that have stymied others in the past.

    On the flip side, I worked in the hospitality industry and had many customers “lose it” on me because their room wasn’t ready on time or because they were charged the wrong rate. The ones who acted with patience and understanding got a free upgrade or a free breakfast while the jerks got nothing.

    1. I still remember something one of my profs said to the class one day in my fourth year: The politics in academe are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

      It wasn’t original, but it was (and still is) accurate. It’s a pity that such smart people are so often so short-sighted. Getting them to work together agreeably is no mean feat.

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