Be Nice to the Janitor

Remember when we were little, and every day we heard the same mantra over and over: Sharing is caring, be nice, play nice. It was pounded into our little brains from the moment we understood ownership and kindness. But somehow, in the midst of growing up and becoming our own people (goodbye parental rules!), we may have forgotten a little.

It’s easy to forget. We get fancy degrees at fancy schools and suddenly we think we have the right to be an absolute jerk to the waitress. Then we land a fancy job, and, well, who cares if you’re a slob in your office, the cleaning crew can get it. Right?

I was lucky to be surrounded by brilliant people during college, and I learned just as many life lessons as I did actual skills. One of my bosses, the Editor-in-Chief of our college newspaper, shared a little advice with me one night, somewhere past midnight, as we bent over pages and pages of newspaper, searching for any remaining, stubborn mistakes before we finally sent the issue to print.

She said, “No matter what, always be nice. Be friendly. Say hello. It doesn’t matter if you’re the president of a company, be nice to everyone, especially the janitor.”

I’ve failed that rule many, many times. I’ve flipped off people on the highway, I’ve snapped at my husband, I’ve been selfish, I’ve judged imperfect people’s choices. But my own behavior often serves to come back and reaffirm my own fear—I am the most imperfect one of them all. And in the back of my mind, the childhood mantra echoes, sharing is caring, be nice, play nice.

At my first job, I once ran into a worker changing light bulbs in the company kitchen. When I walked past him, his head stayed down and he quietly kept working. His jeans were the worn-out kind of faded and his uniform gave away his social standing in the midst of the business casual office attire. He was older, maybe in his fifties, and he fit the stereotype of man-working-toward-the-American-dream. I wanted to stop him and tell him that I don’t think anyone ever reaches it, or if they do reach it, they don’t find it nearly as fulfilling as they had imagined.

I was in a hurry and all I wanted was some water. His face had deep, sad grooves and hinted at stories of bad luck and misfortune in a land that promised so much but delivered so little.

He’s just the guy changing the lights.

I wanted to ignore him, just walk back to my cubicle and forget that someone makes the lights run and keeps the bathrooms clean for us, that someone takes out my trash every night and keeps the dust flurries off my desk.

Say hello or leave? Say hello or leave?

I stopped and asked him how he was doing. Words jumbled from his mouth and I watched them trip over each other in a hurried, almost desperate rush to reach a listener. In 30 seconds, I knew all about how he snipped wires throughout a four-story building just to keep the lights on. He told me how much he hated it, and watching his face shift and wave, I could tell the monotony for money made his soul sick.  

He mumbled something under his breath and then perked up with a smile, “But hey, it’s a job.”

He’s right. It’s just a job, a stepping stone, a path to something better. And if there is one thing I’ve learned in my few short years in the working world, it’s this: Maids don’t always stay maids. Sometimes they write books after they finish cleaning toilets. Sometimes the lighting guy overhears a business plan go wrong and he’s the one to come up with the million dollar solution. Sometimes janitors start businesses and end up dominating the market.

Every “nobody” is somebody and every somebody has value. So I think to myself now, someday that janitor could be my boss. Then what?

So now I’m trying to let that obnoxious driver get in my lane, and I am trying to stop being so selfish with my time and resources. I’m trying to be a little nicer, because really, we should be nice to everybody, especially the janitor.

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