On the Kindness of Strangers

Last week, I had one of those no good very bad days show up on my doorstep. It started simply enough- calls, email, catching up on tasks that pile up when one is in and out of town. It had been quite a few weeks, and I was looking forward to a mellow weekend to assimilate all the details. I contemplated the to-dos as I walked to my car on my bi-weekly move-car-to-avoid-ticketing-for-street-cleaning jaunt, including a much-needed car wash… which is when I noticed my car was missing.

Thus began a 7-hour, shockingly expensive odyssey around Los Angeles to retrieve my car; along the way, I discovered: the ex had racked up rather a lot of tickets, last week’s ticket & tow while I was out of town had put me over the impoundable limit, and (much to my surprise), my registration had expired three days ago. Under time constraints, with a dying phone battery and having used up my tow-yard dial-a-friend just the week before, the day was a recipe for disaster. So, how did I end up in a shockingly good mood at the end of it?

While I have always realized the truth in Blanche Dubois’ famous line on the kindness of strangers, a recent study has demonstrated this is more than an anecdotal phenomenon.  Experimenting with social interactions amongst a group of 100 commuters, behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder discovered that those who interacted with strangers reported an overall improvement in their sense of well being, as well as their productivity levels. Curiously, when asked to predict whether interaction or solitude would be preferable, most participants guessed incorrectly, assuming solitude would be the better choice.

When I first ventured out to address the mystery of the missing car, I chose to do so alone; I was unwilling to ask for help and anticipated a day of grinning and bearing it solo. Over the course of the day, I had 3 visits to the you-in-trouble, girl office, two trips to the tow yard, one trip to the DMV, and a final stop at the lot holding my car. Along the way, I encountered all manner of strangers who, each in their own way, improved my mood and deserve my thanks: three uber drivers, one dmv guard, four dmv patrons, three dmv workers, four tow-yard employees, and one fellow pedestrian. We talked philosophy, life stories, and trivia; discussed the inevitable “this too shall pass” nature of such rubbish chores and costly expenditures. We shared experiences, averted traffic, made each other laugh.

As the hours wore on and I expected my stress level to rise, instead I found myself charmed by the good will and random acts of kindness strangers offered. Each deadline was made by the skin of my teeth, and somehow, even as I anticipated my debit card going up in flames with each new charge, I was smiling.

My takeaway? As I make my way through the day, attempting to stop and smell the roses, I should keep my eyes and ears open for the random human interactions that are the best cure for a bad day; and I should offer others the same kindnesses. You never know how a small gesture can turn around a person’s perspective.

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