Are random acts of kindness not appreciated anymore?
December 1, 2008 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Would it be inappropriate to perform so-called "random acts of kindness" to strangers or the people around me without asking? What about with permission?

We live in an apartment complex, and we're supposed to have our trash in our apartment or in the compactor. It's not supposed to sit on our doorstep for any period of time. But we have one neighbor who leaves trash on his second-story doorstep all the time. So when I was leaving to take out the trash the other day, I saw that once again our neighbors had left their trash on the doorstep. I stopped for a moment and started to go over and get the trash bag (without asking permission) to take it with me since I was on my way anyway.

This was not out of trying to make the apartment look nicer, or trying to get a point across to our neighbors, it was simply going to be a kind act since I was already going to the compactor anyway. But I stopped myself before I did it and wondered if it would really be appropriate. I don't know these people, and aside from giving a smile from time to time when we catch each other going in or out of our apartments, I have never formally met or talked to them.

Another recent occurrence was seeing a woman sitting in her car early one morning in the parking lot, with the windows iced over, apparently waiting for her defrosters to kick in. I was just finishing scraping my own windows, so I considered going over to ask the woman if she wanted me to scrape hers as well since I was early for work anyway. But the same sense of possible inappropriateness stopped me. Again, this was a woman who lived in my complex but I did not know and had not met.

So I guess the question is, are "acts of kindness" like this appropriate? I know everyone will take them differently, but in our society, would I be considered "that weirdo across the hall" if I did stuff like this? What have you experienced in similar instances, being either the giver or receiver of such acts that might help me decide how to feel?
posted by joshrholloway to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It will depend on the recipient. Some people will totally freak out as if you're setting them up to murder them, others will be grateful for the help. If the lady in the car saw you clearing your windows off and you approached her using pantomime to indicate your intentions then she'd likely be happy for the help.

The person with the trash on their stoop would almost certainly be happy to not have to carry their trash down.

But you never know. It also depends on where you live, what city and the pervading attitude.
posted by fenriq at 2:16 PM on December 1, 2008

You clarified that it was "not out of trying to make the apartment look nicer, or trying to get a point across to our neighbors." Your neighbor hasn't had the benefit of said clarification so he/she might come to the very same conclusion that you felt the need to clarify was not the case.

And, from watching Law and Order reruns I think that garbage is personal property until its in the dumpster. They might think you are rummaging through their old mail to get credit card info.

So, they might think you are a kindly chore gnome. Or they might mistakenly think you are a passive aggressive jerk who is trying to teach them a lesson, or they might erroneously think you are a thief. All in all, I would say there are less ambiguous ways to practice random kindness.
posted by ian1977 at 2:17 PM on December 1, 2008

I would say that before you do things like this stop and think about whether there's any way i could be construed badly. For example, in the trash example, I think its highly likely that the neighbor would think that someone was annoyed with them leaving the trash out and making a point. In the case of the iced-over car, there are several considerations: would she know you by sight (i.e. know you're someone who's probably not a wacko or asking for money) or think you're hitting on her? If she can see you scraping your window and you wouldn't have to walk all the way across the lot to do her car (i.e. not put too much more effort in) then it probably would just be a nice thing to do.

Your goal is to make these people a little happier, so just consider whether your actions are more likely to make them uncomfortable than happy.

On preview, you can see that fenriq and I would have a totally different interpretation of the trash, so be prepared for some people to be happy and some not, as he says!
posted by wuzandfuzz at 2:18 PM on December 1, 2008

IMHO The first would less of an act of kindness, but instead helping to support anti-social behavior. Do you really want to encourage them stinking up the hall instead of their own apartment? It would be different if they are old or infirm and have an arrangement with someone else to take the trash down from their step and that 2nd person is just slow.

I think the second would be nice though.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 2:21 PM on December 1, 2008

I think acts of kindness are almost always appreciated. In the instance with the trash left outside the apartment, the terrain gets a little tricky. You wouldn't want to end up being either expected to perform that chore or being seen as passive-aggressive. Still, I think if you happen to pick up their garbage bag when you're on your way to the compacter one day, they certainly wouldn't be upset. It's more likely to cause some confusion (and a far outside chance that the people would be worried about identity theft or something like that).

In the case of the woman in her car, I think you should have gone for it, but asked first. It might seem a little threatening if a random man walks up to her car. I'm sure you could have done a little pantomime along the lines of "you likey me scrape?"

That advice goes for future acts of kindness you might want to perpetrate. If you want to help a little old lady with her bags, ask first in a friendly way. Alternatively, in cases where you never interact with the person you're helping (the trash example, paying for the next person's coffee in line, or maybe the burrito project) I wouldn't worry that they might not appreciate it, just do it. The highest form of mitzvah is, in fact, acts where one doesn't know who one is helping and the person helped doesn't know who helped them.

And, of course, always rewind those VHS tapes!
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 2:24 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would consider the first one way passive-aggressive if it was directed towards me. The second I think is pretty reasonable, although I agree with HE Amb. T.S. L. D. that you should do the scraper waggle-question.

As well, if they say no to an act of kindness that you offer, best is just to smile, shrug, and wander off (especially if you're communicating non-verbally, like example 2), maybe offer again another time. Being persistent here is what makes it creepy.
posted by Lemurrhea at 2:33 PM on December 1, 2008

Consider if you go away for holiday break at the end of the year - who will take out your neighbors' trash then? That's not a good situation.

The second one is nice if you make sure it's ok first.

Random Acts of Kindness work best if you cannot be tied to it (I guess kind of like a random act of violence????).
posted by spec80 at 2:42 PM on December 1, 2008

...but instead helping to support anti-social behavior...

sometimes your neighbor is 87 years old and has a hip replacement. she's a wonderful lady, but she can't take all those stairs.
posted by stubby phillips at 2:43 PM on December 1, 2008

We live in a mean world. Meanness and bullying are everywhere in the media. So, yeah, people might mistake your kindness for some sort of passive aggression. Do it anyway. Feel free to scrape the ice from my windows any morning you like; this would be an act of such kindness.
posted by theora55 at 2:45 PM on December 1, 2008

also, here are two rules i've learned about this:

1) don't get caught.
2) if you do get caught, accept the reward, but try to bargain them down. nobody likes to feel helpless, but ten bucks is a lot of money just for shovelling somebody's walk. a nice baked apple on a cold night is damn fine recompense.
posted by stubby phillips at 2:58 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's a very case-by-case thing -- I personally would say that taking the trash down was a bad idea (frankly, if someone did that for me, I'd love it, but I think there's just a greater potential for backfire), and that in the case of the fogged windows, I absolutely would have at least walked over and offered.

Perhaps becuase in the second case you're offering the option of her refusing, for whatever reason. It's possible that she wouldn't want you to do so -- either becuase she has some space-age coating on her window that ordinary scrapers would damage, or some other reason -- and so that does make it feel more like a gesture than an imposition.

In the case of an act of kindness without asking permission, I'd save that for more obviously-needed occasions -- you see that someone's dropped something, for instance, or you see that someone's struggling with packages and you hold a door for them. Or they've tripped and fallen and you help them up. Those are cases where it's very clearly apparent that they need help. In other cases, where it's a bit more of a gray area, I think asking first is probably wisest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:36 PM on December 1, 2008

Depends on situation, age and gender. If a 20- to 40-something guy approached me offering to de-ice my windows, in a parking lot, I would be cautious, since I've heard stories of men offering some kind of help and then robbing/hurting their victims.

If you're a woman, then offering help is no problem whatsoever in just about any situation I can think of. But since you're a guy... then it's a bit more difficult to judge. Generally, asking first is always a good idea. But don't be surprised if your help is refused. People might just want to be careful ("kids, don't talk to strangers!").

Now, obviously if you saw someone drop something valuable, then pick it up, get his/her attention, and return it. That's always appreciated.
posted by curagea at 5:38 PM on December 1, 2008

For the case of the woman in the car, don't make her roll down her windows. Instead, stand in front of the car and pantomime de-icing the windows. This way you don't invade her personal space while asking and can get clear permission before proceeding.

Even then, try not to do it so often at first that you come across as a stalker.
posted by Monday at 6:13 PM on December 1, 2008

I think the first and second situations you describe here are totally different. The first one can be misconstrued very easily; I know I would be worried if I left my trash outside the door for a minute and someone took it. I wouldn't know what on earth had happened to it and would assume that someone had taken it upon themselves to send me a message of some sort by taking the trash to the dumpster. It would be different if you knocked on the door and said something like, I'm going to the dumpster anyway, shall I take the trash for you, in a nice way of course. And even this might be quite embarrassing unless I knew you fairly well.
The deicing thing is completely different, since it seems less fraught with possible misunderstandings. You're de-icing your car, you don't mind helping a neighbor out, no big deal.
So in general, think if the action you're doing could be misinterpreted as being passive-aggressive or might be embarrassing for the recipient. If not, go ahead and good luck.
posted by peacheater at 6:22 PM on December 1, 2008

I <3>
I'd stick with really safe things like holding the door those extra 5 seconds and smiling, saying bless you to strangers, asking if they need directions if they're standing on a street corner looking confused, complimenting someone on their sweater. And sure, you could do more active things, but try to look around first to make sure you're not in a situation where the person would get creeped out before even giving you a chance.

And yea, the trash scenario could be taken as passive-aggressive behaviour.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 7:55 PM on December 1, 2008

ugh, that was supposed to say "I heart random acts of kindness"

forgot about this thing called html.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 7:56 PM on December 1, 2008

The trash thing would be misconstrued too easily and the ice scraper thing, has potential for a lot of negative misinterpretation. People are can get weird about compliments, complaints and random acts. The culture of a place dictates what is acceptable. In Alaska, for example, there is an expectation of me turning off the car lights of people in parking lots as a good, kind act which would not be considered acceptable elsewhere.

An act of kindness that has impact, is minimally instrusive and costs not much is to carry spare change with you and put money in people's expired parking meters. You save them a ticket and some cash. You also have the experience of buying time.
posted by jadepearl at 1:49 AM on December 2, 2008

I'd actually do both. I do things like this, though. The trash thing might be a bit too far, but if you know the neighbour and just say "hey, I'm off to the compactor - do you need me to help you with this?", it might take the edge off. You never know - your neighbour could have just had a brain fart or a distraction when they were taking out the trash, and might not take your suggestion as being anything but helpful.

I'm not sure why you think picking up your neighbour's trash is necessary, though, particularly if it's bagged and they're strong enough to make it with the bag out their front door. Maybe picking up litter on your street might actually be more helpful?

People really don't know how to respond to compliments or people being helpful, but I'm not sure why it should stop me from helping someone if they genuinely look like they need it. I offer seats to elderly people, I hold doors for people with heavy bags, and I will stop to help someone who looks like they're in distress. They might think I'm cracked at times, but I've never had someone respond in a hostile way. If people think you're trying to make a point, they'll bristle, but if you're just doing it because that's what's genuinely helpful, no.

Scratch that - there was one time... I stopped to ask a kid I'd seen in a local mall if she was OK. She looked to be about six years old, grubby, looked genuinely distressed, and I'd noticed her in the mall about twenty minutes before, wandering on her own, looking like she was lost. Even so, I asked one of the people who worked in the shop I was just leaving to call mall security and to watch when I approached the little girl... as I didn't want someone to think I was trying to make off with the kid. Turned out the little girl and her mother were regulars in the mall - she'd just leave the kid waiting when she went into a shop - and the mother was none too pleased with me when the mall security found her.
posted by Grrlscout at 4:55 AM on December 2, 2008

RAOK (Random Acts of Kindess) are always tricky.

Personally, I try to do these things more often when I'll not have any interaction with the recipient, but since that's not always possible, I try to make it look like something casual and spontaneous. When I was a kid in the Northeast, my Mom would (I realize now) include us in her own RAOK's everyday. Money was tight for us, but she always thought we could always help other people out, even if it was just a little time. We took care of snow shoveling and minor yard stuff all the time, just to be neighborly and nice. I taught my kids to bring up the neighbors trashcans and whatnot - not a big deal, but convenient for them and appreciated, I'm sure.

In your first case, what really stopped you from picking up the trash? Several others have commented on possible reasons why not, but why did you think it was inappropriate? The neighbors probably wouldn't have even known. Heck, it could be a (lazy) kid who's not done his chore, or a habit built up by an adult (put trash outside the door when SO nags so you don't forget it on your next trip out) My general rule of thumb is, if it occurs to me to help, do it. If someone takes offense, apologize and move on. More likely, if they notice at all, they will be thankful and you'll have felt better about it as well.

In your second case, that woman likely would have recognized you also, so offering to help by saying, "Let me take care of that for you," would also have been nice. I live in Florida so I don't own a scraper anymore because it's rare when I get windows that are that frosty, but I'd sure as heck appreciate it if someone saved me a little time and effort like that. I'd probably not pantomime it as the mime might look threatening (seriously, visualize it)

Just stick with whatever's in your comfort zone. Some people might be weird about it. One of my sister's thinks every gift or favor or nice thing must be reciprocated and the Holidays are especially difficult for her as she feels indebted. I just smile at her, give her a hug and kiss and keep handing out gifts to my nephews. Just because she has issues doesn't mean I can't be a cool uncle. You can't control other peoples emotions and actions. Do what feels right for you and let them handle themselves. Most RAOK recipients might never be seen again - so that makes things a little easier.
posted by emjay at 7:23 AM on December 2, 2008

Shame we live in a world where committing random acts of kindness can be like negotiating a minefield. I say, go for it. Don't even stop to think about it. If you have the generosity of spirit to do something kind for someone else, do it. They might have issues, but that's their deal. And we'll only ever break out of our scared little lives by making these connections with those around us :-)
posted by Lleyam at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2008

Shame we live in a world where committing random acts of kindness can be like negotiating a minefield. I say, go for it. Don't even stop to think about it.

In theory this would be great, Lleyam, but in practice it isn't always as clear that what we think would be "helpful" to someone actually is helpful.

Say -- you come across someone that is going into diabetic shock. But, wait, you have orange juice with you! Perfect, you know that orange juice can help in this instance. You hand them a cup of it and say, "here, drink this!" and they do. ....But unfortunately, on top of being diabetic, they're also allergic to citrus. So you've alleviated the diabetic shock, but now you've given them an allergic reaction. Whereas, instead, if you'd asked "can I help you?" first instead of just going for it, they could have specified a request for "fruit juice, but NOT orange".

I admit that's an extreme example, but it's been exaggerated to make clear my point -- that sometimes checking before you act, just a bit, can ensure that your help really is helpful, as opposed to doing more harm.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:55 AM on December 5, 2008

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