Sorry, I’m Busy

Tell us about a time when you should have helped someone… but didn’t.

Roughly 10 days ago I wrote a post about paying it forward, stating my intention to generate a few small acts of kindness to see how people reacted to me and how I reacted to the scenario. Seeing that there’s been a good week between that post and this, I thought it might be a good time to revisit what’s happened.

It’s fair to say that I’ve had a mixed bag, and I think it directly correlates to the size of what you’re trying to do.

My first finding is that people, by and large, are happy to talk. There have been a few instances where I’ve been able to start a conversation and it genuinely feels like that has been received positively. Although I wasn’t able to go back and ask one person “how was it for you?”, I left the conversation feeling better for having had it and I hope the other person did too, even though if was nothing major or deep – just an exchange of words.

Again, something that was very small, was being able to help someone pick something up off the floor that had been dropped. This has happened twice. In the first instance, someone unable to bend down asked if I would pick the lid of her coffee cup up off the floor (long story). She was genuinely obliged, apologised for interrupting my lunch and thanked me. The second time was when someone dropped a scarf. At about the time I bent down to pick it up they realised they had dropped it. This was a difficult one because one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I noticed them having noticed me was that I was now in possession of one of their things. I felt that they could be seeing me as a threat to them getting their scarf back, despite the fact they had briefly walked off and left it.

That nicely leads me on to something that I still haven’t been able to do in the last 10 days which is really the crux of paying it forward, so I’m going to have to try harder. I have not been able to engineer a situation where I have gone to expense to do something. I’d mentioned buying someone a coffee in the other post and I’ve bought myself quite a few since. I think on all but one occasion I’ve had someone behind me in the queue, but I’ve been unable to make them the offer. This also comes hot on the heals of me trying and failing to give away a concert ticket in the street and on social media 2 weeks ago, but this issue lies with me.

I know I have particular vanities but this has been a whole new level of trying to understand what people think of you. In my aforementioned earlier post, I said that there is a cynicism I believe to be prevalent in society where the recipients of a good deed can think that the giver is doing it out of a sense of selfishness as they feel better in themselves for having done the giving. I think there’s two other levels. The first one is that I’ve turned to look at the people behind me and worried myself that I’m putting them in to a position where they feel compelled to reciprocate to someone else and, well, what if they can’t for whatever reason? What if I buy them a single espresso but the person behind them wants a venti 5 shot caramel latte macchiato?

Karl Pilkington did an episode in the second series of The Moaning of Life this year called “How to Live Your Life”. In this episode he met a rich guy in the States who hid money on a beach and tweeted its location for people to find. He did it anonymously, other than obviously having a much followed Twitter account. In the same episode he met some vigilante superheroes, or at least people who dressed up as them who took to the streets in an attempt to make people feel safer. In both these instances I feel like there was a degree of separation between the giver and the receiver which maybe didn’t compel the receiver to take action themselves.

The second level of self-conscience that struck me about a random act of giving a material item is what if that person just thinks that you’re just a plain weirdo?! It’s close to the lines of someone thinking that you could be selfishly wanting something in return, but I found myself wondering if their second thought was that I might just be a bit wrong in the head! In this instance I believe that a barrier might be the difference between want and need.

In an anecdote that answers this Daily Prompt more closely, I was in a shopping centre the other day when someone asked me for £1. I had absolutely no change or cash on me at that point in time. I was only carrying plastic and had no intention of withdrawing any real money. She followed me for a little while saying that it was “only £1”. This made me feel guilty and sometimes I know I should stop conversations sooner, but I had to explain that I knew it was only £1, but at that point in time I did not have it to give. She seemed confused by the idea that someone on a shopping trip could not have money to give.

This woman needed the pound and, because she needed it, she would have been happy to take it. The person behind me in the queue at Starbucks simply fancies a coffee and are presumably of the means that they can get a Starbucks coffee rather than a cheaper one elsewhere. Because it’s a want that they are capable of fulfilling themselves, why would they need someone else to do it for them?

So what have I got out of these 10 days? A reason I wanted to do this was to learn about myself – the previously mentioned selfish reason.  I wanted to understand where the limits were in the scale where being genuinely useful is in the middle, with a lower end of doing something for someone because you want something in return and the higher end of people treating you like a doormat.  Everyone will place these limits somewhere differently.  I wanted to understand how someone might see me when they ask for a favour:

  1. Do they ask out of genuine need and so are genuinely grateful?
  2. Do they ask out of genuine need but temper it with the thought that they’ll give something back sometime?
  3. Do they ask out of a need and see me as someone who will just do it anyway and that they ask simply to take advantage because it’s easier for them?

I still haven’t worked that out.  Indeed, I wonder if there should be a fourth question.

In contract law there is a theory about the cheapest cost avoider where the party that pays for a shortfall in a contract is the one that can most afford to do so.  Say you buy some shoes and you wear them repeatedly but they always hurt your feet.  It can be seen as reasonable to take the shoes back to the company with millions in turnover who will refund you for the shoes because the shoes are cheaper for them than they are for you.

I wonder if there’s a level of this in generosity.  When my friends and I go out we largely split the food bills evenly and buy rounds of drinks.  We will break the rule where someone hasn’t had a dessert or has been on soft drinks but there is no-one has the expectation that they will be doing anything other than splitting the bill evenly.  Occasionally we’ve been out and someone has approached the night in the manner that uneven round splitting is an expectation.  In other words, that someone is generous because they can afford to be.

This type of generosity is difficult for me.  I can go out and be the cheapest cost avoider, in that buying the round is not as expensive for me as it is for someone else.  Because a few drinks is not worth as much to me as a fun night, I’m happy to take the cost.  Do people see that honesty in the situation or, again, do they see an instance where they will openly abuse my position or else simply assume that their presence is enough?

That goes back to how people see you and it is something I worry about in social situations much more than at work.  I mentioned in the previous post that my motivation is to make people happy even if it’s just taking a small stress away.  If I can, I will.  It’s not so much a worry about their wellbeing but if I can put myself at a very minor disadvantage to give them a very minor lift, then surely that’s good.  If I can feed the parents’ dog so they can enjoy their holiday – great.  If I can do some washing up while I’m waiting for someone so they don’t need to do it later – great.

What this last 10 days has done is that I’m now thinking that being useful or nice can actually make someone feel worse about themselves because they may not feel able to pay it forward themselves.  Is that the case? How can one find that balance?

I used the think the only question I should ask of myself when I was asked for help is “can I?” but now I think I also need to ask “should I?” and I find that sad.

Weekends in bed, no scramble eggs, or bacon –
I just have time for you .
Backs on the grass, heads in the clouds,
We closed our eyes –
Enjoy the view.

Busy by Olly Murs (I wasn’t going to use that, but it came up while I was looking for something else! For a start, bacon is always better with someone else, as long as there is enough of it!)

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