Must Be Nice

February 25th, 2011

I just read a piece by Mike Monteiro of Mule Design, mostly about choosing clients who you can stand behind, but hinging on an anecdote about interviewing a prospective employee:

I asked him if he agreed with how they made their money. He replied in the negative — he’d just done the design. I told him we didn’t take on any projects that we couldn’t ethically stand behind.

And here I’ll quote him: “Must be nice.”

And that’s when I decided not to hire him.

Almost 15 years ago I was working my ass off at Apple as a junior engineer in the System 7 software updates team. I was trying to make a reputation in my new career, but also doing my part to make sure we shipped on time. In a historical sense, most what we built is hard to get excited about these days, but we were doing the exact same thing that Apple does today: iterating to give our faithful customers a reason to stay faithful.

In a group that was primarily oriented around fixing bugs, my colleagues and I were especially susceptible to a problem that plagues many developers: once you’re on the tail of a bug it can be hard to stop hunting until the issue is resolved. Some days we worked short hours. A hard-won victory at 4PM might be grounds for calling it an early day. But other times, stumbling onto a glimmer of hope with an impossible bug that “had to be fixed by next week” was cause for camping out until the wee hours of the morning.

One of these marathon bug-hunting sessions had a coworker and myself working until 2 in the morning, bleary eyed, but desperate for a solution. Usually I would recommend rest and resumption when it comes to this point, but we felt sure we were on the verge, and this was an important, difficult bug. We had a breakthrough, and spent another couple hours verifying a fix, testing it, and checking in the code. We went home exhausted but jubilant.

I collapsed at 5AM and slept until 11, conscious that the bug-busting marathon was not over. My boss, my boss’s boss, and for all I know, his boss’s boss were all aware of what we had done. It was a significant win for the team, but there was plenty more to do.

When I got into work after noon, my colleague was already there. He was talking, in the common area of our floor, with a humorless, long-time employee who worked in an administrative role with our team.

“Where have you been?” she asked contemptuously. “We need to ask you about the blah blah blah.” I’ve forgotten the specifics.

“Sorry, I was here late last night and only got in a few minutes ago,” I said.

“Must be nice,” she answered tersely. Her words stung. I was young, trying to prove myself, and had just returned to the fray after helping with an important victory. She had left at 5PM the previous night and had a long, restful night’s sleep. Or at least, that’s what I assumed she did.

What irked me most about her “must be nice” comment was how profoundly void of empathy it seemed to me. I hated her for years because of this. In part because of her, I have since been extremely sensitive to these pithy, jealous expressions: they jump out like smarmy little diamonds. But when words like these occasionally get lobbed at me, I am not nearly as hurt as I once was. I tap into my own empathy reserves, imagine what a crappy life they me struggling with, and try to wish the best for them.

It’s not so nice to be a person who says must be nice.

9 Responses to “Must Be Nice”

  1. Andy Lee Says:

    Ooh, there are a couple of dickish expressions like that where if I’m not too tired or moody that day I can keep a straight face, but silently I’m thinking “You can seriously go f*ck yourself.” And once I have that reaction to someone for whatever reason I’m afraid I find it hard to let it go — I’m weak that way. I had not thought of “Must be nice.” Totally agree.

  2. wvh Says:

    One that gets me is “let’s face it…”.

    It short-circuits any disagreement, claiming that you *know* the other person is right, but you just refuse to *face* it! Everything you have to say is obviously just a product of your denial. Man, why won’t you just face it? Blehhhhhh.

  3. x Says:

    Trusting your own opinion is the best bonus of growing up.

    People being a dick, they just need that. We all do things for a reason, and some people young or old, mostly young, they are trying to compensate and massage their ego. It’s funny when you read a forum response that starts

    Blah blah blah.

    No. In your face. Im right and you are not. Me > You. There.


  4. Joe Says:

    I agree with you that ‘must be nice’ is often a lousy thing to say as it was in your situation at Apple. However, sometimes ‘must be nice’ is the right thing to say when someone who has the luxury of doing the ‘right thing’ expects people without the same luxury to do the same. I got that sense a bit in the Mule piece. Sometimes the person lacking empathy is the person toward whom ‘must be nice’ is directed.

  5. Andy Lee Says:

    @Joe, I agree there can be valid uses of “must be nice”, in particular when people with certain luxuries are oblivious to what it’s like not to have those luxuries. I suppose there can be times when one means it literally and non-sarcastically, though one would have to be careful that one’s tone is not misinterpreted.

    @wvh, One that gets me is “Get over it”, for the same reason — it’s dismissive and just assumes there’s no reason to give any consideration to your perspective. I really hate the implicit insult in that.

  6. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    I will add “it is what it is” to the list of highly questionable dismissive idioms. ;)

  7. Peter Maurer Says:

    @Daniel, I agree about the “it is what it is” idiom’s annoyance potential, but the worst thing about this one is that it reminds me of one of the greatest 20th-century poems, and I don’t want it to, because it borders on sacrilege. Who knows, maybe that idiom is even indirectly based on the poem.

    So as as an attempt to balance the chagrin that statements like “must be nice” can provoke, I submit to you Erich Fried’s originally German “Was es ist”, as translated to English by Gwilym Williams:

    What it is

    It is nonsense
    says reason
    It is what it is
    says love

    It is misfortune
    says calculation
    It is nothing but pain
    says fear
    It is hopeless
    says insight
    It is what it is
    says love

    It is laughable
    says pride
    It is frivolous
    says caution
    It is impossible
    says experience
    It is what it is
    says love

    (OK, I’ll let you guys get back on topic now.)

  8. Andy Lee Says:

    Interesting, I’ve never heard “it is what it is” as a snotty remark. As spoken to me, it’s always been either a commiserative thing (“it sucks that we’re both stuck with things the way they are”) or a deflective/euphemistic thing (“for whatever reason, I don’t want to go into details, hence the tautology, but my implicit subtext is that ‘it’ sucks”).

  9. Dylan Says:

    The word that triggers negative feelings for me is when a potential client uses “simple” to describe a project – that’s when I know that the client and project are not for me. While the project may truly be simple, the word devalues the work I am going to do, and, more commonly, shows that the client won’t care about the crucial details that are needed to make projects great.

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