Calculated Acts of Kindness

Merritt - Portland, Maine
Entered on September 29, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe in small, calculated acts of kindness: thank you notes, baked goods for neighbors, hand written dinner invitations and abundant compliments. I believe in this because as far as human relations go, these small acts seem to me to be the best return on my investment.

Amongst my family and friends my fastidiousness for writing thank you notes is legendary. I write thank you notes to thank people for writing me thank you notes. I admit to being more than a little obsessed. The act of sitting down and writing out a handwritten note takes only a moments time. And yet, my expectation is that the recipient, however unromantic, will find joy in receiving a handwritten note mixed in amongst bills, catalogs and junk mail. This then is my calculation: minimal effort on my part; some degree of joy and surprise on the recipient’s part. As far as investment strategies go, this seems like a good one.

My belief in these calculated acts verges on the absurd. For example, and much to my husband’s dismay, I have been known to disable the EZ pass, pick the long line for the toll booth where there is a real live person and wait, simply in order to thank the toll attendant graciously and wish him or her a good day.

Or my insistence on never using a drive through ATM, but always a drive through teller, and preferably one where I can actually see the person and am not just communicating through camera, plastic tube and speaker. In this one I’ve got support: my dog and kids rejoice, there is usually a dog bone and lollipops in it for them.

I’ve often wondered about my obsession with these seemingly trivial exchanges. Do I overestimate the power of my acts? Does the toll booth attendant really care whether I’m gracious or not? Perhaps he’d rather not interact at all. And yet, there’s no denying we’re social creatures by nature. Our world with its automated everything takes us further and further from human interaction. This drive towards efficiency in all aspects of life seems bent on eradicating the simple human exchange. These acts, then, are perhaps my own personal rebellion at this rapid departure from all things personal. That and a measured calculation that with very little effort on my part I can surprise someone with a small dose of the unexpected: a hand written invitation (replete with my illegible hand writing and misspellings) rather than the impersonal evite.

I realize I may well sound like someone from another era, or even another reality (who, after all, has time to write thank you notes?). But I guess this is the point, the thank you note, the gracious thank you to the check out person and the dedicated avoidance of all things automated, are, in the big scheme of things, not terribly time consuming. And while I can’t really say if I bring some small amount of joy to the people I barrage with my calculated act of kindness, I can say that I find joy in these exchanges, even on the occasions they don’t seem appreciated.

So, perhaps these acts aren’t at all about bringing joy to others, perhaps they’re more about me and my craving for pleasant social exchanges. No matter, I expect I’ll continue my obsession with thank you notes, bank tellers and toll-booth attendants, navigating a path of human interaction amongst the ever-efficient, automated world which is ours.