on the kindness of strangers

I’ve always thought, despite my grim Eastern European upbringing, that people are generally kind and helpful when given the opportunity to be.

Except that in practice, I have never found this to be true.

Recently I was reading a thread on an online forum that consists mostly of young women from well-populated places in North America, where someone had asked the group: “When someone you don’t know asks to use your phone, do you let them?”

For me it was such an obvious and resounding ‘yes’, that I was shocked when the group’s answer came back as an unequivocal, equally resounding, ‘no’.

“Of course not,” some scoffed. “Only if it’s a woman and she looks like she’s in trouble,” others wrote.

I don’t know why I was shocked, since every time I’ve asked strangers for help I’ve been treated like I’m about to fleece them for all their money and belongings, while being covered in some sort of unsavoury substance.

Once I got stuck at Amsterdam Central Station without my wallet. I asked a stranger to buy me a 2 Euro train ticket so I could get back home and pick it up. He replied, with a lecherous grin, looking me up and down: “Only if you give me something in return”.

Another time – while carrying a cat in a box! – I asked to borrow a woman’s phone so I could let the person I was meant to be meeting know that I was running late. The woman gave me the aforementioned look – one you would give a urine-soaked mugger – and coldly replied: “Uh, no.” as if she couldn’t believe I had had the audacity to ask.

I suppose it is extremely naive of me to continue to assume that people want to be helpful when they so rarely are. But what concerns me more is not the way they behave, but the abject fear with which I, a fairly harmless-looking (I think) person, have been treated on multiple occasions.

Why are we so scared to lend a hand, or a phone, to a stranger?

Is it the fact that we live in cities, where we generally do not even know our neighbors, let alone anyone in our block or other general vicinity? Even in 1970, Stanley Milgram wrote* about an experiment that showed that people living in urban areas were far less likely to let a stranger into their house to use the phone than people who lived in the suburbs. When I read this study I scoffed at it, and yet reading a bunch of New Yorkers answering “no” to the same question without a second thought 45 years later, I did start to wonder whether there might not be something to it.

Is the problem in the fact that the news, in covering horrible events (which are by definition out of the ordinary) makes them seem commonplace and like they could happen to us any minute?

Is this a microcosm of the bystander effect, whereby people are so hard-wired to assume that ‘someone else will help’ that they are unable to force themselves to give a crap?

Or maybe the very phones which started this conversation are tearing us so far away from reality that we struggle with an unscripted interaction with a strange human being that does not take place through a screen?

Are we regressing back into narrower tribes as our world (supposedly) opens up beyond our wildest imaginations?

I don’t know what’s causing this – but I know that it’s a problem.

So for whoever reads this, I have a request. I know that it’s the 26th of December and the festive season is nearly over. But I implore you to think a little longer about whether or not you can do something the next time you encounter a stranger who needs help. And if it’s something that will cost you little effort (and you’re not genuinely afraid for your life) – maybe consider helping. I’m not saying I do all the time – and I’m not saying nobody ever does – just that I know that for many, the instinctive reaction is to close our eyes and walk on by. And I just want to say how big of a difference it can make in someone’s life to have kindness shown to them by a stranger. I know I still tell the stories of the people who were assholes (see above) and the ones who were amazing to me (another time). Which one would you rather be?

*Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, Vol. 167.
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About Varia

Traveler, writer.
This entry was posted in City, Culture Shock, Life. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to on the kindness of strangers

  1. Jack says:

    Varia,

    I was coming out of check cashing place here in the states (a large metropolitan city). I had just bought a money order worth hundreds of dollars to pay my rent. As I walked to my car, which was parked only a few steps in front of the building, a slim guy approached me. He asked if I could give him a ride someplace. I don’t remember exactly where he wanted a ride to, but it wasn’t really far from where we were. Initially I was hesitant. “I’m not sure about that” was something I replied. But apparently he gave me enough of a reason, and he looked like a decent guy, that I agreed to give him that ride. Long story short…20 or so minutes later I had $500 less in my bank account and the guy (and a buddy of his) had disappeared around the corner of a building with my money. Never to be seen again.

    That’s one of a handful of incidents that have occurred in my lifetime that makes me cautious about helping strangers, when it comes to small things.

    I’m naturally a nice guy. I want to be helpful. And if someone’s life is in danger there’s no hesitation about helping.

    But ask me for my phone, or anything like that, and I will assess the area that I’m in and other factors and determine if I’ll comply or not. Initially, my answer would more than likely be “no”.

    I think all the reasons you’ve mentioned are partially why the problem is prevalent. Not to mention it seems like society in general has been moving more towards a “me, myself, and i” society. Everyone’s looking out for themselves first.

    Apart from that, information moves much faster than it did just 15-20 years ago. The media has expanded to regular people reporting incidents. So we’re more aware of “bad things”, which adds to our personal conscious.

    Speaking from someone in a large city, I feel much of it depends on the environment that a person lives in. Crime tends to be more prevalent in larger cities, so one has to be more cautious around strangers…including women. A couple of weeks ago, near here, a woman was arrested for violently snatching a purse from another woman, in front of a busy department store.

    But despite all of that, I feel when it comes down to it the human spirit still prevails when it really counts. When someone is in danger, people spring to action. And it’s a beautiful thing.

    If it could spread to simple day-to-day things, then that would be something worthwhile.

    • Varia says:

      Hi Jack,

      I’m very sorry that this happened, and I understand that being burned in such a manner can’t make it easy to be trusting of others’ motives. And I certainly did not wish to imply that there is no danger in doing so. Of course there is. We’ve all been, to a smaller or larger extent (like yourself) victims of our own kindness.

      The reason I wrote the post was merely to draw attention to the fact that for many people it seems that to ignore and/or deny requests for help from strangers is not a matter of past trauma but simply a knee-jerk reaction. And I would argue that even when someone is truly in danger, it’s not that simple to mobilize people to help, unless they are literally lying on the ground with visible signs of injury (and even then it’s not always the case).

      So the only thing I wanted to do was make people stop and re-consider, because one act of kindness can change a life (or several).

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

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