The Kindness of Strangers: Recognizing Humanity
“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” — Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Be nice to people you don’t know. Seriously. I know it sounds a little bit corny (because talking about emotion has become corny in our society), but I get personally annoyed when people single handedly deny the human experience of others by mistreating other people for seemingly no reason.
The other day I was in line at Subway getting a good ol’ five dollar foot-long lunch, and there was one woman ahead of me in the queue, and there was an Asian woman behind the counter making the food. I do not want to assume the Asian’s woman’s length of time in America, but she did not speak with an American accent, and her English was in developmental stages, undoubtedly she was some sort of immigrant. Nevertheless, she was taking everyone’s order just fine. Returning to the lady in front of me, she asked the aforementioned Asian woman for a Chicken Bacon Ranch (yum), and I guess the Asian woman behind the counter began to make the wrong thing.
The lady in front of me goes, in the most horrid you-need-to-learn-to-speak-english-tone ever (you know, where people slow down what they’re saying and over-articulate), “I said a Chi-cken Bay-con Ran-chuh.”
Amazingly, the apocalypse didn’t hit because this woman almost got, say, a Spicy Italian instead of a Chicken Bacon Ranch, but still her tone was so harsh that another worker behind the counter felt the need to defend the Asian woman by saying, “She didn’t hear you, sorry about that.”
The Asian woman did not seem visibly hurt, she merely corrected the order, then took my order. But then asked me after she took it, “You said Chicken Teriyaki, right?”
I nodded and smiled, and said “Yes, I sure did.” And I wanted to say, in an attempt to undo whatever damage the woman in front of me might’ve done, You heard me just fine.
This might sound a bit like a rant, but I feel that often times we fail to evaluate the effect of even our minor interactions with other people. Particularly those we consider “foreign,” or “alien,” to us.
Maya Angelou on Humanity and Foreignness
I don’t know what was going on in the mind of the woman in front of me, maybe she was having a bad day, but in whatever mood she was having, she was utilizing her privilege as an American fluent in English to assert some sort of pressure against a person without some of those same privileges. Kindness is reciprocal, and how we treat others speaks volumes about who we are as people. The interactions we have with people, our kindnesses, our awareness of our privileges, these not only help other people’s lives better, but also project images of ourselves that might be more in accordance with who we truly are as individuals. I don’t believe in the Hobbesian idea of humankind being basically evil—but I do believe we don’t value the small acts of kindness we can do everyday to those around us.
I recently was blessed to take a trip around Europe, and while the experience was uplifting and exciting, at times it was enormously difficult to be in countries where you did not speak the dominant language. Imagine being somewhere unable to read a sign, unable to follow a map, trying to use a transportation system that you are unfamiliar with. What helped me travel through Europe were the people who would stop and offer help. Who were kind enough to listen and offer their services. Did they walk away feeling like they changed the world? Probably not. But they helped me experience new cultures, and in a roundabout way, they got me home safely. They don’t know the effect of their kindness, but it had a profound effect on me.
After Europe I told myself that I can no longer be upset with “foreigners,” because I now know what it feels like to be considered “foreign.” It’s not fun. (And I was “foreign,” in the “tourist” way, not even in the I’m-trying-build-a-life way.) You have amazing challenges and difficulties to surmount. And people manage to thrive everyday despite the petty under-expectations that get launched at them everywhere from their job to the government.
So yeah, “check your privilege,” as a friend of mine once told me, and be nice to whom you consider strangers. Not necessarily because they’re angels in disguise, but because they’re real people too, and our lack of kindness sometimes ignores that.
Nat Says It Best – Nature Boy
Feel free to share some stories of kindness below, they serve as great reminders to the world.