Sunday, March 13, 2011

The power of being a stranger

I was walking up the stairs at school one day as a girl was walking down. As we passed, we smiled at each other and then she hesitated. She took another step down, paused, and ran back up three steps to where I was. “I’m sorry if this is sounds weird but you just look really cute.” I didn’t quite know what to say but before I had grasped the compliment, she was already heading back down the staircase. I went on my way but couldn’t help to think about how easily an unexpected compliment can brighten your day.

What is it about that moment, and hundreds of others like it when a stranger compliments you or performs a random act of kindness or simply starts an unexpected conversation that seem to have so much power to impact us, to brighten a day? I think the answer lies in the basic fact that it came from a stranger.

In anthropology, Marcel Mauss is known for his work concerning reciprocity and the act of giving. Mauss’ work centers around the practice of potlatch among the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest where tribes would present rivals with gifts and feasts in an attempt to out-give each other. The tribe that could not give away or destroy an equal or increased amount of wealth was considered defeated. While similar practices of exchange and reciprocity have been studied as a part of economics, Mauss views the potlatch as relating to social structure and as symbolic of social relationships. He considers the three acts of giving, receiving, and repaying as social obligation. When Mauss coined the phrase “no gift is unencumbered,” he basically said that no gift or act of charity or kindness is done without expectation of return in some form. People donate money to charity for all sorts of reasons without always recognizing it: for tax breaks, for social status, out of tradition, etc. As in the case of the Kwakiutl, gifts were a way of gaining honor and prestige and the inability to give led to shame and loss of social status.

So what is it about a stranger’s gift, be it a compliment or kind act, that strikes us as so unexpected? Maybe it’s because with a stranger, there is much less social obligation. When a friend leaves you an encouraging note, there is some expectation to return the gift at a similar level, perhaps saying thank you, perhaps with a note in the future. When a stranger leaves an anonymous note of encouragement in your mailbox, as one incredible friend often does for her neighbors, there is no expectation of return. It is a gift in the truest sense. The giver may have gained a small bit of social status if she told others about the act or perhaps gained a sense of self-satisfaction, but largely, the gift was socially unrepayed.

As strangers, we hold incredible power in the smallest acts. I’ve heard the story, be it true or not, about someone at the drive-through of Starbucks on a busy day who paid for the order of the car behind him. When the car pulled to the window and found that the drink was already paid for, there was no one to thank or to return the favor to, so instead, the driver paid for the order of the car behind her. This went on for hours, each car paying for the one behind, until the line died out. The desire to repay the gift was passed on from stranger to stranger. Shows like Secret Millionaire and Extreme Home Makeover capitalize on the emotion and impact of unexpected and unreturned giving. And few can deny how inspirational they are. But it doesn’t take a camera crew or thousands of dollars to have the same impact. All it takes is being a stranger. Sure, a compliment may not match building a home, but the principle is the same. It is a gift without obligation. Keep that in mind next time you’re at the grocery store or school or work or anywhere you meet a stranger. Because in that moment, you have an incredible power to brighten someone’s day.