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Monday, July 23, 2012

When We Forget To Be Nice

More than three decades ago, I met a man who epitomized consideration.  He was, by any standard, a good looking man, in his mid twenties.  He had his flaws, of course, as all of us do.  John Boehn lived his life on the public welfare system, even though he was capable of working.  That path, it seemed, was common in the late 1970s.  John, though, did not take more than what he needed to get by.  In fact, he paid support for a child, without the prod of a court order.  Being on welfare, at that time, he would not have been ordered to pay, anyway, but he did. 
John lived in a rooming house, where he paid $130 per month for rent.  His welfare allotment was $245.  He paid $125 in support, voluntarily.  Had he paid more, his son’s mother, who was also on welfare, would have had the additional amount clawed back. Once each week, he worked at a casual labour site, where he was paid about $25 per day.  After the routine expenses, he was left with $90 for food, clothing and toiletries.  For many of us, that would have been inadequate.  But it was more than enough for John.
Twice each month, on the dates that he received his welfare payments, he did something extraordinary.  John spent $18 on flowers.  Not flowers for a girlfriend.  Not flowers to decorate his Spartan apartment.  Flowers for strange women. 
On those allotment days, John would buy his flowers first thing in the morning, and then would begin walking along the streets, stopping at certain bus stops, or randomly, giving away one rose each time.  His criteria for giving?  The woman had to be elderly, be on her own, and appear to be sad or disheartened.  He would give a rose to that woman, telling her, “This is for you, just because you are special, and important.”  Then he would walk away.
Can you imagine the surge of uplifting joy that recipient would fee?  Twenty-four women each month had their day heartened by John’s unique act.  He was an aberration.
Most of us do just the opposite of John Boehn.  We forget those less fortunate, those weaker, poorer or somehow seemingly inferior to us.  Worse, when we look down on a group in society or an individual, we even forget our manners.
The majority of us still will pause to hold a door open, or smile and acknowledge an equal.  But, it seems, we have inherent elitist tendencies, when it comes to the lower socio-economic classes.  We haven’t time for them.
Similarly, when we expect courteous behaviour, we fail to take the time acknowledge that polite action.  Think of the last time you thanked your waitress, simply because she was courteous to you.  Or your taxi driver. Why should their consideration (even if it is part of their job) be less valuable than when we do not expect polite behaviour?
Study upon study shows that the more of a rush in which we find ourselves, the less likely we are to be courteous.  Worse, the more likely we are to be inconsiderate.  Consider the frequency of the middle finger salute during rush hour traffic.  Or relive the experience of boarding a crowded bus or subway during that same rush hour.  We freely jostle and push, without so much as an “excuse me.”  Manners and courtesy, it seems, are merely a frill, lavished when we have surplus time, or when our day is going absolutely perfectly.
A more sinister explanation may be possible, too.  Think of the bad behaviour we demonstrate when we are anonymous, hurling insults, for example, at our sports figures from the obscurity of a mass audience.  The Vancouver Olympics riots were, in part, a demonstration of how we lose inhibitions and let our more base character emerge when we believe that we will not be held accountable fore our actions.
However, the loss is more personal, and less the loss of the victim than you may expect. Again, psychological studies reveal that when surveyed after an act of selfishness or inconsideration, respondents actually reported a lower feeling of self-worth.  If we sometimes mistreat others, it has been assumed that the act helps us to feel better about ourselves, by putting others down.  These studies seem to contradict that belief.
While doing a good deed made John feel elated, he did not do it to reward himself.  That was a corollary benefit.  We, too, will experience a more positive mood when we take the time, particularly when we are in a foul mood or having a bad day, to be considerate of others.  Instead of perpetuating our bad mood by rudeness, we ameliorate our negative moods, and actually help to make ourselves happier, by making others happier. 
The lesson is simple.  Take the time to be polite and considerate.  It is good for us, and for others.

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