Reflections: the Kindness of Strangers

By Ayan Mukhopadhyay, Global MBA Student, India

From childhood we have all probably been taught not to talk to strangers, and that it’s better to stay away from them. We have religiously carried this advice with us to adulthood. But if you stop to think, you will realise how bad a piece of advice this can be. Imagine a world where no one talks to other people since most of them are strangers, of course, except for members of their family.  In the first place, there most likely wouldn’t be any families at all!

So if we never talk to strangers and avoid them, we will never meet anyone or make any friends. There has to be a beginning somewhere and approaching ta stranger to talk may be the first step. In our day-to-day life, we come into contact with many strangers. At times, situations in our lives are such that either we are forced to take help from a stranger or a stranger comes forward to help us. I am sure there have been instances where you have been left speechless and engulfed in a sense of gratitude by the act(s) of kindness from a stranger. The act may not be significant enough to make a substantial difference in our lives but what is more important is the act in itself, however small it is. What is important is the urge in the person to come forward and help someone in distress, even though it means taking some amount of time from his or her life. Sometimes when we are generous in small, seemingly undetectable ways, it can change the life of someone else forever#.

What drives a person to be kind to someone who he or she has never encountered and with whom he or she has no relations whatsoever? What does a person derive from a small act of kindness for a stranger? The answer possibly lies in the inherent feeling of love & faith in humanity and in being humane: the belief that kindness will beget kindness, i.e. doing good to someone will come back someday. As a matter of fact a small act of kindness can start a ripple effect, where the recipient is inspired to be kind to someone else in need. “Pay it forward”, as this ripple effect is usually characterised by, essentially signifies the idea to repay a good deed by reciprocating in the same way to someone else in need. It’s not the motivation to look good in other peoples’ eyes that drives “Pay it forward”, rather the urge of touching other peoples’ lives in a positive way. In short, our words and actions define the world we want to live in. Here is what Benjamin Franklin had to say about it:

I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.

Here is a small anecdote of the effect of kindness from a stranger as written in

The lunchroom lady was small, wizened woman with frizzy hair and no makeup. She never smiled and would pounce on people wanting a plastic spoon for their sack lunch. “That belongs to the cafeteria,” she’d bark. “You need to pay for that.” I was delighted—she was perfect!

The next time I was in line, I held a dollar out. “What’s that for?” she asked looking worried. Had I taken something she hadn’t seen? “It’s a tip.” “Tip?” she scoffed. “People don’t tip in a cafeteria.” “I do,” I said firmly. “What for?” she asked, disbelieving. “You never make a mistake with my change,” I said. “Besides, this place couldn’t be paying you that much.” “Thank you,” she stammered, and just for a split second she flashed a smile that bathed her entire face in sweetness. This was getting heady!

After that, when I’d tip her, I noticed other people in the line doing the same. She began to wear nail polish, and when I complimented her on it, she began to wear lipstick as well. A few days later I noticed her hair was fixed and she was smiling and chatting with people in the line. There even seemed to be a spring in her step.

One day I didn’t get lunch until late, but she rousted out the cook to fix up something for me. While I was waiting, she was wiping down tables. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “the past year and a half has been really rough. First, my husband of twenty-six years left me for a much younger woman. Then my mother passed away, and one of my sisters died of cancer.” She paused, then leaned over and whispered, “You made me remember there’s still some good in the world.” I wiped my eyes and after eating returned to my co-workers. I explained to them what I had been told, and they admitted the lunchroom lady had been a source of jokes. Lately they noticed she was friendlier and wondered why. We were all rather ashamed of ourselves.

A couple of years later, the lunchroom lady retired. There were three large cakes, completely eaten by all her friends, and it took two boxes to cart all her gifts home. Some of the most prominent management types in that company could not boast a more enthusiastic celebration.

If we stop to think, a one dollar bill might seem to be very insignificant to most of the readers, but it can have a profound effect on someone else’s life. I am sure that you as a reader of this blog might have come across situations when you have been helped by a complete stranger. While it is up to you whether you want to pay it forward and create a ripple effect, it is worth giving some thought to how it would affect peoples’ lives.