It’s Thought that Counts

I believe society can be improved with almost no cost by people taking little steps; such as think more about other pedestrians, and saying thank you when someone tries to help. However, part of me also wonders if it is possible to be too helpful, and whether saying thank you is sometimes the wrong thing to do.

This morning I braved the storms to gather food pouches for the cats, and a few other items. To counter the torrential rain I donned my most waterproof coat and put the additional cover over my rucksack. I knew what I wanted so did not linger, meaning my coat and bag were still covered in beading water when I arrived at the self-checkout. Juggling coat and cover, cat food and card, I managed to get my bag open and start putting my items in while I waited for the card machine to process my payment. Payment completed, I removed my card and gripped it in my teeth while I continued packing.

Suddenly a hand crosses the path of my hand, then crosses back clutching paper: “You have vouchers. Don’t forget your vouchers.”

With one hand in use to hold the rain cover for my rucksack away so it did not drip over the open bag and the opening of the rucksack itself, the other manipulating both a box of cat food, and semi-manipulators such as the crease of my elbows and even the pressing of my knees sodden, I was momentarily puzzled about how I was to take these vouchers. In the end I swerved my hand around theirs to dock the cat food before claiming the vouchers on the return journey.

A mouthful of debit card spared me the moral quandary of whether or not to thank them for this unhelpful helpfulness. But in the past I have struggled with the issue of thanking someone for something unhelpful. Most commonly in an ironic reverse of my usual issue with pedestrians taking too much space, I encounter people who leave space when it is really not necessary: I am walking along the kerb edge of a three person width pavement when someone flattens themselves against a wall; I am descending side of wide stairs when someone waits at the bottom rather than pass by on the rail side.

It is easy enough to take the stance saying thank you in these situations is a moral act, because it is the attempt not the execution that deserves recognition, and I used to hold that view without thought. However, two doubts have risen up:

  1. Are all these actions actually attempts to help? Handing me my vouchers is a fairly clear attempt to help, but are all the people who clear my path actually trying to be considerate, or do they view my presence as a problem? By thanking them am I intruding further on their attempt to not interact with me?
  2. Does execution deserve value too? If being thanked for helping reinforces helpfulness, then does thanking someone for poorly executed help reinforce the habit of poor execution? By not withholding thanks do I unconsciously create the belief that disrupting my packing was worthwhile.

Are my attempts at social cohesion, actually creating social stresses? Overall, I still believe the good done is better than the harm, but I no longer see instinctive politeness as an unconditional good.

Do you thank people if you think they might be trying to help? Do you only thank people who succeed?

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6 thoughts on “It’s Thought that Counts

  1. Say thank you. You’re not trying to reinforce their behavior, you’re not trying to teach them anything. You’re saying thank you, because it’s a custom of ours to do so in such situations; it demonstrates not only appreciation, but also cultural solidarity, and identifies you as a person not to be wary of. It’s up to them what they do with that.

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    1. The reinforcement argument was always something of a straw horse with regard to etiquette; although it does interest me from a psychological perspective.

      The argument that how people take my actions is their choice is attractive on a certain level; however, I am aware that there are people (some orthodox Muslim women, for example) who are troubled by being spoken to by strange men, so my overall drive to be considerate must take that into account. If there is arrogance in taking on the burden of trying to spare other people discomfort then it is not the worst arrogation in the world.

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  2. First you need to determine the motivation behind the action, and then figure out precisely why the execution failed, and consider whether it was from a lack of experience or if the failure is habitual, not neglecting the state of mind of the person at the time of the incident, and any extenuating circumstances such as weather or time, and the presence or absence of onlookers, because you are clearly not overthinking this enough yet.

    Or you could just say “thank you” brush past the person, and get on with your day.

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