About a year ago, I heard Justin Graves (a fellow student at Virginia Tech) explaining Actively Caring for People, a movement with a pay-it-forward philosophy urging people to show and appreciate kindness every day. As I understand it, it works by encouraging people to give green wristbands to people who are kind in ways that are not necessarily expected, accompanied with a verbal explanation of the wristband and a genuine expression of thanks. There is more to it, and you can read more on its website, but I had to explain that to get to the real subject of this blog post.
Justin recently posted the following Facebook status, which got me thinking (and blogging):
“If you did not already know, I have a personal rule of meeting one new person every day and helping one person every day. Today, I went to the grocery store, and the cashier and her bagger were extremely helpful by unloading my cart onto the belt and even helped me take my groceries out to my car despite the fact that it was raining. After giving them green bracelets, I decided to call the store and tell their manager how helpful they were. She then proceeded to tell me that she was going to comp my entire bill of groceries today…which was $150. A little bit of random kindness and caring for others goes a long way, people.”
Justin is an amazing guy for a variety of reasons, and although he is incredibly involved at Virginia Tech, it is his character that I find most inspiring. He consistently goes out of his way to kindness, and despite this particular story having monetary benefits, it is clear that his behaviors are a result of wanting to spread joy to others – not for his own benefit.
Studying abroad has opened the doors for me to meet all sorts of people from all over the world, and I am always curious to hear about what others have to say about the United States. Many people who have visited the States mention something about Americans being kind. Usually this is expressed as a good thing, as you might expect. Others, however, are bothered by the constant pleasantries and well-wishes. They see it as a façade; acquaintances will ask you how you’re doing, but you’re expected to say ‘good.’ Even cashiers will tell you to “have a nice day” – but do they really mean it?
After I realized that common American pleasantries might annoy people from other cultures (and for legitimate reasons), I began evaluating my own interactions with others to be sure I always mean what I say. After spending some time in Europe, it has become easier to understand where people are coming from, and while people here might not always put on a smile for strangers, they are almost always genuine when they do.
I’m not exactly sure where this leaves me, or leaves us as a culture – the Facebook post got me thinking and I believe it’s good food for thought. In a perfect world, people would look for ways to help others, and borders would not dictate one’s behavior. It would be great if Americans could always mean what they say, and it would be great if Europeans tended to care more about strangers. Of course, an individual’s identity and behavior is not wholly defined by where one lives, so I suppose every person must decide for him or herself where they stand. Otherwise their behavior may very well be defined by their society, for better or for worse.
As for me, I would like to stand with Justin. I could do better at showing and appreciating kindness (we all can), but I hope to never sacrifice kindness for authenticity, or vice versa.