It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice

I’ve been a little “preachy” lately, telling you that you should let people finish their sentences, and always check a problem out before you tell a user that their issue is “impossible”. Well, I’ll round that out with one more tip today. Keep in mind that all of these things are actions I’ve been guilty of, hopefully in the past. I’m kind of a “work in progress”. And yes, I know these tips are coming from someone who picks on people in presentations, but that is of course done in fun, and (hopefully) with the audience’s knowledge.


(No, this isn’t aimed at any one person or event in particular – I just see it happen a lot)


I’ve seen, unfortunately over and over, someone in authority react badly to someone who is incorrect, or at least perceived to be incorrect. This might manifest itself in a comment, post, question or whatever, but the point is that I’ve seen really intelligent people literally attack someone they view as getting something wrong. Don’t misunderstand me; if someone posts that you should always drop a production database in the middle of the day I think you should certainly speak up and mention that this might be a bad idea!  No, I’m talking about generalizations or even incorrect statements done in good faith. Let me explain with an example.


Suppose someone makes the statement: “If you don’t have enough space on your system, you can just use a DBCC command to shrink the database”. Let’s take two responses to this statement.


Response One: “That’s insane. Everyone knows that shrinking a database is a stupid idea, you’re just going to fragment your indexes all over the place.”

Response Two: “That’s an interesting take – in my experience and from what I’ve read here ( I think this might not be a universal best practice.”


Of course, both responses let the person making the statement and those reading it know that you don’t agree, and that it’s probably wrong. But the person you responded to and the general audience hearing you (or reading your response) might form two different opinions of you.


The first response says to me “this person really needs to be right, and takes arguments personally. They aren’t thinking of the other person at all, or the folks reading or hearing the exchange. They turned an incorrect technical statement into a personal attack. They haven’t left the other party any room to ‘save face’, and they have potentially turned what could be a positive learning experience for everyone into a negative. Also, they sound more than just a little arrogant.”


The second response says to me “this person has left room for everyone to save face, has presented evidence to the contrary and is thinking about moving the ball forward and getting it right rather than attacking someone for getting it wrong.” It’s the idea of questioning a statement rather than attacking a person.


Perhaps you have a different take. Maybe you think the “direct” approach is best – and maybe that’s worked for you. Something to consider is what you’ve really accomplished while using that first method. Sure, the info you provide is correct, and perhaps someone out there won’t shrink a database because of your response – but perhaps you’ve turned a lot more people off, and now they won’t listen to your other valuable information. You’ll be an expert, but another one of the nameless, arrogant jerks in technology. And I don’t think anyone likes to be thought of that way.


OK, I’ll get down off of the high-horse now. And I’ll keep the title of this entry (said to me by my grandmother when I was a little kid) in mind when I dismount.

Comments (6)

  1. tosc says:

    The second response is a part of the German term "Business-Knigge". I wish you a nice day,


  2. Brian Tkatch says:

    The second approach is better, but is very hard, especially when i believe the person put in no effort. In a sense, he doesn't deserve the polite response.

    But i still have room to grow. :)

  3. Kendra Little says:

    I agree with you for the most part, but I think the second response could use some of the supporting detail from the first response to make it stronger (in this example the reference to fragmentation).

    Basically, as a woman I have found that I can use the second style of communication successfully only if I provide concrete supporting data and facts as much as possible. Otherwise I sometimes don't get taken seriously.

    I have also found that being TOO nice can also be an issue for long term work relationships. I try very hard to be clear about setting expectations in most professional situations. I do try to be polite about it (although I sometimes miss the mark here), but if I'm too polite it starts to get vauge and people expect me to show up with a rainbow and magical unicorn every day.  But this may be a different case as I think you're talking about more general, public communication here?

    Thanks for posting this. I like these posts, they help me think critically about how I communicate, which is always a good thing!

  4. Buck Woody says:

    I have heard a few comments that sometimes you "can't be nice". I don't mean that "nice" = "rollover and play submissive." Even when you disagree, you can be a lady/gentleman about it, and stay professional. External circumstances should not dictate who you are inside. And if you'r a minority at a company (male/female/black/white) and you feel pressured to be rude to do your job – quit and go somewhere that they appreciate your talents. No one should work in a hostile environment or one where they don't take you seriously. Deprive them of your talents – it's the greatest injury you could possibly inflict.

  5. Nobody inparticular. says:

    The first comment is too harsh, the second comment is too weak.  If you disagree with someone you should present facts, not make unsupported statements about "best practices". It literally tells people nothing, and adds nothing to the discussion other than you don't agree.  Simply saying something along the lines of "Shrinking the database presents a lot of risk due to it affecting X,Y and Z, so while it may work in some instances, it must be done with those potentially harsh consequences in mind".

    It's fine to disagree, but if you want the other party to actually learn something (and quite frankly yourself as well) you need to provide the reasons for your difference of opinion.  If you don't, the other party will never learn anything, nor will you if it turns out you're wrong.

    I find informative people a hell of a lot more useful than "nice" people.  Informative doesn't mean you have to be a jerk.

  6. Curious guest says:

    I love that phrase "It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice." When I lived in Milwaukee WI back in the early 80's a DJ used that phrase every afternoon when he signed off. He died of cancer while still working for the radio station. That phrase has stuck with me all these years.

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