A man approaches you in a dark pinstriped suit with wide lapels. He stops and gestures to you to come even closer. Then, in a hushed voice he asks, "Would you like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?"
This scene and the selling of the famous span that unites Brooklyn with Manhattan have been the subject of countless jokes and many actual sales. Most of us have wondered who would be so stupid to put money down on the bridge and who would be such a good salesperson to be able to pull that sale. Will Rogers, however, had a very different thought. He said, "I would rather be the person who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the one who sold it."
When I first read this statement, I wondered what Rogers really meant. It is a criminal offense to sell something that isn't yours, though I doubt that is what he meant. Rather, I think he was saying something about how he governed his personal life. Rogers wanted to be sure that he conducted his dealings with others in a manner that was fair and honest. He did not want to take advantage of another person by doing something like selling that person the Brooklyn Bridge.
For some, Will Rogers' desire to be the buyer and not the seller of the Brooklyn Bridge seems an old-fashioned code of ethics. Many believe rather in the ancient Latin warning: "Let the buyer beware." This admonition has not only been around a lot longer than Rogers' statement, but it seems to be more in tune with present day practices and reality. The concept is that if you aren't on your guard, it is your fault if someone take advantage of you. Some see this ancient adage as an excellent way to protect themselves from having someone take advantage of them. These preemptive strike proponents borrowed their concept from military strategists. If you can hit the other before you get hit, you can protect yourself. While this may at first blush to be a smart strategy, it doesn't work in the long run. Let's look at why it doesn't.
If you think about how you respond to someone who is always attempting to take advantage of you, you will understand why the preemptive strikes don't work. When confronted by this type of pushy person, we put up our defenses. Whenever, we see an aggressive person coming, we prepare ourselves.
Now, change the scene. Imagine that instead of dealing with an aggressive person, you are dealing with someone like Will Rogers. How will your response differ? Because you don't have to have your guard up, you will respond to a gentler person more positively than to the aggressive person. You will attempt to wall off the offensive person so that he can't get to you. When I am shopping, I will shy away from making a purchase, even if I'm ready to pay for it, if the salesperson is pushy. I'll search out a person who is more pleasant and less threatening. It doesn't matter to me whether the salesperson is paid hourly and isn't on commission. I'd rather do business with someone who is affable and non-combative. Don't you prefer to deal with congenial people and avoid pushy ones?
Our responses illustrate why the bridge seller's strategy doesn't work in the long run. We are more likely to get along with people if we treat them the way we would like to be treated. They in turn will also be less aggressive or defensive toward us. If we deal with people in a positive manner, we will have contributed in a small but significant way in making America a kinder and gentler place in which to live. The only disadvantage to this approach is that jokes about selling the Brooklyn Bridge will soon become obsolete.