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Advantages of ‘being nice’
A few days ago I was, as I sometimes am, in a coffee shop, happily sipping my decaf americano and reading (it might have been a James Lee Burke book – that has no bearing on this story…). A woman with some shopping bags walked over and sat at the next table, which still had some empty cups on it. Her son (I’m guessing it was her son) sat there too. They were just settling themselves, removing jackets, placing bags on the floor.
There was very little room on the table for anything else and the cups would need to be cleared before fresh ones could be put down.
Acting impulsively on nothing more than an instinctive inner voice telling me it’d be nice to move the cups for the lady and her son, I asked if she would like me to remove the cups for her (I could do that without even moving from my seat). Initially she had that slightly taken aback expression you get when another member of the public speaks to you unexpectedly (this is Scotland, not the USA, where random words between strangers doesn’t seem quite so uncommon and terrifying), then smiled and said that would be helpful, thank you.
So I removed the cups for her and her son. I removed the cups…even though I was sitting quite happily at my own table and the lady and her son were quite capable of clearing the table on their own. I removed the cups…even though it wasn’t my job and there were staff about…somewhere. I removed the cups, just because something inside me whispered…”It’d be a nice thing to do.”
Moments later another younger guy (another son….?) arrived with a tray and coffee and cakes which he placed on the now cleared table. He had no idea I had cleared it.
It was a ‘nice’ thing to do. It felt good, can’t deny that.
Regrets at not ‘being nice’
In the car park elevator later, I noticed that the woman in the elevator with me had pressed the button for Floor 7. She was checking something in her handbag. I pressed button for Floor 6. Naturally, the elevator stopped on the lower floor first.
I noticed she came out of the elevator after me even though it wasn’t her floor. I momentarily wondered if, because she had been concentrating on the contents of her handbag in the elevator, she hadn’t noticed me pressing for Floor 6. Maybe she assumed we were now on Floor 7.
I paid my ticket price at the machine and went to open the door leading to the car park itself. With my peripheral vision I could see the lady paying for her own ticket.
A little voice inside said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to tell the lady that this is the 6th Floor, not the 7th? It might save her an anxious moment if she goes to find her car and it isn’t there. She might think it’s been stolen.”
But I didn’t say this, I didn’t act on this instinctive voice, and all the way to my own car I thought ‘Why didn’t I say anything?’ Was it Scottish reserve kicking in? Was I not being ‘forward’ enough, not ‘extrovert’? Did I simply not want to interrupt her? Was I afraid she’d be annoyed at my intrusion? What if she replied “I’m not stupid, I know what floor I’m on!”? What if, what if, what if?
A hundred opportunities could pass like that every day with that inner dialogue playing in a loop.
I walked to the car without speaking to the lady. Then I looked back and saw she had come into the car park, realised it was the wrong floor and gone back in and up the stairs to the next level.
No harm done, she found her own way. The fact I hadn’t told her this wasn’t her floor, the fact I hadn’t done the ‘nice thing’ made no difference to her whatsoever. But I felt a little sense of regret all the same. I didn’t get the little ‘buzz’ I had when I cleared the coffee table. Instead of the ‘buzz’ I felt a little pang of regret.
It wasn’t a good feeling, that regret, but I had to tell myself that it need not develop into a feeling of guilt. Just because I hadn’t done the ‘nice thing’ didn’t mean I had instead done something terrible. I hadn’t committed a sin of omission.
The little whisper inside had simply suggested it might be a nice thing to do.
Sometimes we act on the prompt, sometimes we don’t.
We should be careful not to let ourselves feel guilty when we don’t act on it, when there really isn’t a great deal at stake, when not doing the ‘nice thing’ ultimately makes little difference to the person who hasn’t had the ‘nice thing’ done to them.
Equally, we should be careful not to put ourselves under pressure to act in every situation. We should further spare ourselves feelings of guilt when no sin has been committed.
Motives for doing a ‘nice thing’
I remember a time when I went through a particularly chivalrous phase and opened shop doors for anyone and everyone (almost), a kind of perpetual ‘after you’. It was, again, a ‘nice feeling’ to hear a surprised, “Thank you!”, “Chivalry isn’t dead after all”, “You’re a gentleman, thank you!”. One slow moving elderly gentleman with a walking stick even apologised when I held a door for him because he felt he was moving too slowly. I told him not to worry, to just take his time, it’s no problem. He replied “It’s nice to meet someone who isn’t impatient with me…”
It felt good.
Then one day I held a door open for a woman with a pram who was clearly struggling. She pushed the pram through the doorway I was holding and didn’t look back, didn’t say anything, didn’t acknowledge me, nothing at all.
I confess I was taken aback. I felt somehow slighted. Although I didn’t say it, what I wanted to say was a sarcastic “Aye, you’re welcome!”
Later, I questioned my motives for holding the door open for people. It can be simply a helpful thing to do, a ‘nice’ thing to do. That should be reason enough, to help someone who is struggling or simply to hold a door because I was there and it seemed the right thing to do, whether the other person was struggling or not.
But that day I realised I had started doing it in order to receive the gratitude. Why else had I been annoyed at the woman with the pram? She hadn’t said “I didn’t ask you to hold the door for me” or anything like that, she had simply not acknowledged it. Maybe she was right, was she supposed to express gratitude for something she hadn’t asked for help with simply because it would make me feel good?
I learned that day that, while I can’t deny it’s nice to receive gratitude, if I’m going to do something then I should do it because it’s nice or right or helpful, because it’s something I want to do. I shouldn’t do it with the intention that I’ll receive gratitude. That, I think (though I know I could be wrong) is, in it’s own way, quite a selfish motivation.
That is all.
Please feel free to leave any thoughts.
Thanks for reading 🙂