I could see the tension brewing. The irate man, one hand waving his beer, the other tightly clenched into a fist, was spewing venom into the face of one my fellow bouncers. Moving quickly through the crowd, I stepped in between them and directed the unsteady patron’s attention to myself.
“Hey man, what’s the issue?” I asked.
“This a**hole is trying to tell me I gotta leave!”
“No worries, just follow me.” I motioned for him to walk. “Let’s talk for a minute.”
I glanced back at my coworker, who shook his head, further confirming what I already knew. This man’s party was over, even if he didn’t realize it at the moment. He vented his frustration, I listened, reasoned, and soon enough he was out the door with his friends in tail, clumsily staggering down the street.
I worked the door at one of my college town’s bars while earning my degrees. The flexible hours fit my class schedule, and the decent money supplemented the BAH payment from the GI Bill nicely. However, most importantly to me at the time, it fit the ‘tough guy’ image I was so desperate to maintain while coping with the reality that I was now just another college student. One might think being a bouncer would further complicate this personal dilemma, but by the time I clocked out of my last shift on the door, I was a very different person from the one who had put in the application years prior. Strangely enough, despite hundreds of confrontations, verbal abuse, and the occasional physical violence, being a bouncer taught me a valuable and unexpected lesson: Be nice.
In one of the more famous scenes from the hilarious 1989 cult-classic Road House, professional doorman with a PhD in philosophy Dalton (Patrick Swayze) lays out three rules he wants his unruly and goonish bouncers to follow. The third rule is to simply be nice:
“If somebody gets in your face and calls you a c***sucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk, be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him, but be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you and you will both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s the job, it’s nothing personal.”
‘Being called a c***sucker isn’t personal?’
“No. It’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.”
Initially, Dalton’s third rule was difficult to follow. Being a bouncer can be akin to herding cats, with the additional bonus of the cats being 5 tequila shots too deep. When a belligerently drunk 21 year old is throwing a temper tantrum and every colorful term they can think of your way, chucking them out the door like a bag of rocks can seem far more appealing than any attempt to be nice. However, I realized that not only is this a good way to possibly land legal problems, it is also a quintessential example of working harder, not smarter. I soon found that empathy, not overt aggression, was a far more useful tool. In probably 95% of situations, a firm but friendly approach allowed me to get individuals out the door peacefully, at the very least saving me a spike in blood pressure. In short, I got what I wanted, and it was vastly easier and more pleasant compared to the alternative. Hard to argue with that, right?
At this point, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with you. Unless you are in a line of work that entails that sort of thing, my musings on treating irate and combative people with friendliness might seem like I’m barking up the wrong tree, but bear with me. Following this so called “Dalton’s Third Rule” is applicable to anyone and in everyday life. It’s more than efforts to be friendly and empathetic, it’s about taking control of your words and actions, as well as how you represent yourself as person. Equally as important, it’s about how your behavior reflects on the larger community you are associated with. When I was bouncing, this rule applied to how my actions represented the business. Even if a person was truly in the wrong, mistreating them reflects poorly on the bar as a whole, potentially hurting the business. In the military, the same rule applies; what we do while in uniform can have far reaching consequences because that uniform stands for something much bigger than the individual man or woman wearing it. Many of us followed this line of thinking while in service, and we continue to do so in whatever our new professional settings may be—but what about as veterans?
As veterans, we carry the identifier whether we want to or not. The real question is how, and to what extent, we wear it. If you choose to outwardly display yourself as a veteran, go right ahead. I firmly believe that military service is always something to be proud of and nothing to hide. However, remember that we are still a part of a community bigger than ourselves, one that can still feel the rippling effects of our personal actions. Nowadays, it isn’t even just about our daily interactions face to face. In this digital age, our behavior has a reach that is truly hard to fathom, all across a medium where context may be convoluted or even missing entirely.
Dalton’s Third Rule is simply an approach that can help us avoid becoming our own worst enemies. Not only that, but it can be a handy tool in bettering yourself, your relationships, and your ability to capitalize on opportunities for networking and professional development. While the extent of the so called civilian-military divide is debatable, I think there is little question it exists, and at the benefit of no one. As veterans, if we continue to push labels on ourselves like “angry”, “disgruntled”, and “dysfunctional”, all while picking fights and seeking to belittle those within and without our community, we are missing out on chances to fix the very real problems that eat away at so many of us. If we proudly claim to not care what others think of us, then why should we expect the rest of the country to care at all? If we want to find our place in society and have our grievances answered, then why do we so often choose the paths of isolation, aggression and belligerence?
Veterans, I think we’re far past due for an upgrade to our image and a change in our approach to getting our voices heard. We have plenty of serious issues to work on like mental health stigmas, challenges finding stable and purposeful employment, and difficulties accessing care and benefits. These are problems we can’t solve on our own, we have to tackle them together as a nation. We should work to repair the rifts within the community, and then bridge the divide without. Anger is a poor tool for developing understanding, and even worse for building cooperation. Give Dalton’s Third Rule a chance. Be tough, but practice empathy. Let empty words roll off your back, and choose your own carefully. Set the example. Make more friends, not more enemies. Work smarter, not harder.