The Perils of Being Nice

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Don’t upset the chef! Illustration by Arthur Rackham

According to Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, we judge people on two main factors: warmth and competence. Warmth—whether they are friendly and well-intentioned, and competence—whether they have the ability to deliver on those intentions. She says, “We admire and help people who are both warm and competent, and feel and act contemptuously towards the cold and incompetent.”

And yet, the other day, my being “warm” to one of the queens of pop-up hospitality in London only incited rage and barking. And then, when I tried to diffuse the situation with more warmth, I was perceived as even more incompetent—an airhead, and might well have done better if I had behaved cooler.

My friend was desperate to introduce me to the pioneer of the pop-up restaurant business, also the woman he’ll be working with at festivals and possibly in her kitchen while he stays with her. He showed me one of her business cards when we met off the train, and I was excited. We arrived at a gorgeous house with flowers blooming over the entrance, a handmade ceramic number pinned to the door frame. It was cute, and inside: beautiful wooden floors, a large open dining room half-prepped for guests and French windows that led onto a lush garden with a small white summer house at the end of it, for private parties.

The woman in question was on the phone. So we loitered in the corridor and read numerous favourable testimonials taped to the wall. Half an hour later, we popped our heads around the kitchen door.

“I’ve got to go,” I heard her say. “There is a stranger in my kitchen.” She meant me.

“This is my friend, I wanted you guys to meet each other,” my friend said to her.

She is a short, harassed-looking woman and she stormed through the kitchen giving me more than just the once over. “Hi,” we said in unison.

“I love your house,” I chirped. “It’s so gorgeous. And you do a pop-up restaurant here?” My enthusiasm was genuine, but she doesn’t like it.

“Listen,” she said, looking like she was ready to charge at me. “Do you really think I’m going to talk about, A,” she pointed a tiny finger to the ceiling, “my ‘fabulous’ pop-up restaurant; or B, how I make the fabulous effing food for it?” as a celebrity might bark down questions on their sex life. “So don’t ask me about that,” she said. But I wasn’t there to interview her. She turned to an open cookbook on the sideboard. Silence fell.

“I’d love to have a place like this one day,” I said, but I’m now afraid. Maybe she could ask us a question?

“I’m making mustard,” she huffed. Should I respond to this? I could ask her what type? Why? How long it takes?

“Do you make all your own sauces?” I asked nicely, searching for my bag.

“You know what? I’ve answered these questions to death. I,”—she waves her soiled spoon in the air—“have been interviewed by everyone and I,”—she sticks it into the Magimix—“write a blog! Read the effing blog that I spend hours on if you want to know about my restaurant! Read the fucking interviews if you’ve got any questions!” She wasn’t joking. She wasn’t even playing the role of “drama chef”, rather something similar to a bride yelling abuse at her bridesmaids in her wedding dress. She’s a hostzilla, and the warmer I was to her, the more horrid she grew.

While researching the concepts of warmth and competence, psychologist Nicolas Kervyn performed a study on two groups of people, one “warm” and one “cold”, and his findings showed that people regarded the colder group as more competent. The upshot: “Your gain on one [trait] can be your loss on the other.” As if people who are actively warm to others must be concealing what they are lacking in. Maybe that is true. I concealed my nervousness by asking questions that she clearly didn’t want to hear.

“Do you know the book Like Water for Chocolate?” I asked.

“Think I watched the film,” she said.

“When the girl cooks, all her emotions pour into the food, and the people that eat it go wild.”

“So, I should make my mustard with less bitterness?”

“Well, it is mustard, so maybe it’s OK.”

At this, she sort of laughed and I turned to leave before I could say something “nice” again.

“Well, you should come to my restaurant if you want to know more!”

Judgements and prejudices are far more complex and subtle than the “warm/competent” theory. I only disliked her so much because she seemed to hate me for no good reason, not because she was cold and certainly not because she came across as incompetent. She later called me “posh” and “bimbo”, even without knowing anything about me, so I guess that ties in with class and hair colour; or perhaps I was an unexpected guest in her kitchen when she was tired. But why go through so much effort creating a brand of cute, retro chic, right down to the font on the business cards, when you’re a nasty, barrel-shaped woman who wields mustardy spoons at people? Maybe her plugging this warm, welcoming image of her business since it started has worked too well, and because she is not in reality anything like that, she has started to repel against her own branding, and those drawn to it.

Juliette Golding

Juliette Golding

Juliette Golding studied at Cheltenham Ladies' College and The University of Manchester before going on to study creative writing in San Francisco. She moved to London as a script writer and marketing executive and is in the process of completing a book of short stories. She currently lives in East London.

Juliette Golding studied at Cheltenham Ladies' College and The University of Manchester before going on to study creative writing in San Francisco. She moved to London as a script writer and marketing executive and is in the process of completing a book of short stories. She currently lives in East London.

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