03/10/2012 12:01 EST | Updated 05/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Dispatches from Down East: Where It Pays to Be Nice


I happened to be waiting in a local administrative office the other day when I asked the busy assistant for help with something. She was swamped with paper work. Yet she smiled and took a moment to address me in a kind, calm voice, as if she had all the time in the world. Any fool could see she must have been inwardly pleading insanity, yet there was nary a crack in her demeanour to indicate that she was feeling anything other than happy.

The unflappable niceness of a true Maritimer.

I feel blessed to have met, and known some of the nicest people around, many of whom come from all over the Maritimes. While we Easterners pride ourselves on being welcoming and polite, being nice is an art form that Maritimers have perfected.

We know how to turn on the charm, and work that down-home magic that makes people who visit our little corner of the world want to come back for more. That's the art of being nice -- and being born and raised down east.

When I was attending university in Ontario a few years back, I worked in a residence convenience store on campus at the cash register. On a busy evening, I would see few hundred customers come through my register. After one hectic night of sales, my upperclassman supervisor asked to see me in his office. I couldn't imagine what the issue would be, but I knew it was rather serious from his tone of voice.

He shut the door, looked me square on, and said, "The customers think you are unfriendly and rude." I was a bit floored, as I had never purposely intended to come across that way. I wracked my brain to think of a case in which I had acted in such manner to a customer, and could not think of one incident. All I could come up with was that perhaps my innate introverted personality had created the impression that I was stuck-up and impolite.

I was so bothered by the thought of being rude that I made it my mission to be over-the-top nice and friendly to everyone I spoke to the rest of the evening. And, for every other shift after that, I was determined to be as polite a convenience store employee as humanly possible. You know you are a Maritimer when...

The fact that I had been misinterpreted as being rude challenged my Maritime identity. And it made me consider why it is so all important to be nice in the first place. If Maritimers are truly polite as we claim to be, what is the reason behind all the pleasantries?

Being polite certainly is a must for those Islanders who depend on the tourism sector that helps fuel their economy. Tourism makes up nearly seven per cent of the Island's GDP and has created close to 7,000 full-time jobs for residents.

There is one test of any traveller's stay that must be passed for return visits: friendly, efficient service. I have had run-ins with people, both from the Maritimes and not, who don't understand the value that being nice has for their business. Bottom line, no kindness, no repeat visit.

Case in point: We have frequented a little campground in the summer that prides itself on making the camping experience quiet, peaceful, and relaxing. Little things go a long way. How many campgrounds can boast of fresh flowers placed in earthenware in the washrooms? It makes a difference as well to see the owners and operators around the facility, chatting with guests who often become life-long friends, making yearly return visits. The power of being nice does that for tourist operators. And it makes customers come back, year after year, for more of the same.

In his book, Best Maritime Short Stories, George Peabody says that the existence of a Maritime consciousness is evident in our commitment to community, and our willingness to make strangers (i.e. tourists) experience a warm welcome in that environment. Although every community is going to have the odd bad apple, most Islanders and Maritimers realize the benefit that being nice affords. There are certain intrinsic benefits as well as obvious extrinsic benefits for niceness, namely in the form of dollars and jobs. Truly, we cannot do otherwise than be nice; our Maritime identity is shaped by our commitment to be the nice guy. And our Maritime economy is coming to depend on it.