Some years ago I was pitching an interview with a very well-known actor to a newspaper with a somewhat, shall we say, acerbic take on life.
Mid-flow I was repeatedly interrupted with: "But what's the hook? What deep, dark secret is he telling us and only us?"
Although knowing I was on a hiding to nothing, I explained that he had serious insights into the business, with which, I was convinced, readers would be fascinated.
Wasn't it time, I suggested, to have a bit of intellectual depth in the paper? Something without the drip, drip, drop of acid? I stumbled on into the chasm of silence. "Actually, he's just incredibly nice," was my lame finale.
The intake of breathy contempt was audible. "Nice? Nice? Fidelma – we don't do nice."
Of course he was right. Nice, unless it's dressed up as the obligatory sweet animal survival story, doesn't sell newspapers. But journalists are not alone, there is a whole nation who doesn't do nice. Who think nice is for wimps and losers.
Being "gentil" in France is asking to be taken for a ride, considered not quite the full 50 centimes and treated with head-shaking disdain. Which is why a magazine's attempt to introduce a Be Nice Day has merited columns in France's newspapers and heavy, perplexed discussion on TV channels.
Today is Be Nice Day in France.
It is lunchtime as I write, just hours after the start of what, in France, could be considered a great social experiment. In the background, a radio phone-in programme is being inundated with les miserables calling to protest at such foreign merde. "Sod nice," says one, according to my best interpretation. "Who do they think we are –Yankees?"
"I'll be nice when I'm nice and not before," says another. "What's so bloody nice about nice?" demands a truculent man.
"A pathetic word," practically spits one caller. "Where has being nice ever got anyone?" asks an obviously bitter woman. Actually, excuse me, I can answer that. Nowhere.
Phoning an electrician friend as a favour to get him to come to sort out the tadpoles in my electric loo, Roselyn was reduced to saying how really, really nice I was, totally deserving of an electrician (this was after he said he could perhaps do me a favour and pencil me in for February 2013). He never came despite eventually promising his arrival the next day.
Yesterday I asked her to tell him I was the Irish witch/bitch from hell who would curse him for generations unless he turned up within 48 hours. He's phoned to say he'll be here tomorrow.
Le Mag Femme, a popular women's website, would understand that. According to them: "In everyday speech, the word 'nice' often implies a lack of intelligence, and it's common for niceness to be associated with the inability to make oneself respected."
The papers today follow a similar theme. French ennui in such matters is perhaps best summed up by Journal Du Dimanche quoting Christopher Regina, author of A Dictionary Of Malice: "Niceness is the opium they're selling us these days." The French Huffington Post's headline reads: "Can you be French and nice at the same time?" Basically, it concludes the answer is non. It quotes a Francois Mauriac line from the book Nest Of Vipers: "A certain kind of niceness is always a sign of treachery."
Even Le Monde reports the boss of Google Europe as saying: "I'm afraid that France behaves spitefully. You can't be constructive like that."
He goes on to say that the French are the most difficult of all the nations with which to work.
The truth is the French are rightly suspicious of niceness. As, if we were honest, so are we. I prefer the scowl of a waiter to the bright smile of a "hostess" to escort me to my table while wishing me a good meal, a good day, a good life, a good whatever. I'm not interested in the fact that she's "Kimmie" who wants to make my burger the exceptional moment in my day. She isn't nice. She's programmed.
I once met an American woman who had lived in France for more than 40 years. She'd fled an east coast Brahmin family for footloose bohemia in Paris and never looked back. After her virginity she lost her wide all-embracing smile.
"I used to walk the streets of Paris beaming at everyone," she told me. "I was just so thrilled to be there. No-one smiled back. They crossed streets to avoid me. I was hurt. Why didn't they love me the way I loved them?"
One day a lover told her to treat all with a sneer not a smile. "They think you're insane. We only smile and are nice when there is reason." In truth, don't we all believe that?
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