Forget about Paying it Forward. What about Paying Attention?
A few weeks ago I was at a gathering with a few expats, where pizza was consumed. We were using scissors to cut the pizza (Swedish pizzas are super thin and rarely presliced) and I noticed that our hostess needed them. So I grabbed the scissors from the floor and held them out to her. She was so thankful and specifically acknowledged the gesture because, as she pointed out, it often seems that people don’t notice the little things that can help others. It got me thinking about why I automatically notice and act.
How Do I Get Attention?
I don’t know if this is a cultural, societal, age, or era thing, but for whatever reason, it is natural behaviour for me.
It is possible that genes (England) + environment (British parents) + Maritime upbringing (Nova Scotian, me!) is just the right combination to construct a human who does pay attention. Combined with some training on my part, martial arts for years, living in large cities (London) with high crime rates, being a thinker, travelling alone to many places, observing people, eating alone in restaurants, watching people, writing about them. The majority of my jobs have also required attention to detail, so I am not sure if I had the skill to begin with or if I honed it over the years. Probably a combination of the two.
I also think it is because helping others has been my way of pulling myself out of depression. By extending myself beyond my inner turmoil, I have learned that it makes me feel better.
I also find it very entertaining to offer help to random strangers—carrying heavy luggage at underground stations, offering an arm to an elderly person crossing the street, letting someone in front of you at the grocery store because they only have a couple of items, pushing the elevator button for a colleague…and so on. And trust me, it is not so easy when you are a foreigner often incapable of speaking the language. But I keep doing it. I keep trying to rise above what the typical people do. I do not want to be a sheep and follow all the time.
I have not experimented in any non-Western cultures, but at least where I have lived, helping people seems to have become the exception and not the rule. Even in jolly ol England where politeness (sorry! yes please! no thank you! sorry!) is an automatic response to most situations, people do not necessarily pay attention.
And those I help are usually very suspicious, quite rightly too. But that is why it is fun, a challenge, and ultimately satisfying.
Perhaps the key issue is not whether people notice but why fewer and fewer people are willing to act.
No Attention Please, We’re Swedish
Of course there are many factors at play as to why people don’t want to help others, or why we don’t notice when help is needed. Not wanting to be noticed, for example. In Sweden, as with other cultures, it is important not to intrude on someone else’s personal space, not to interfere. And the most obvious reason today as to why fewer people notice and act is because we are plugged in and oblivious to our surroundings. The larger the city, the more strangers around you, the less likely you are going to feel comfortable offering assistance. And it has often been pointed out to me that perhaps people don’t want my help at all.
I get it. Mostly. I do. I don’t stop to give money to the homeless people ever (that requires an entirely separate post, I prefer to take them for lunch), I don’t always smile, especially when I am struggling not to burst into tears, and I certainly don’t always notice stuff. But during my lifetime, enough people have told me how surprised/pleased/amazed that I noticed that I guess I kinda have developed a skill.
I shudda been, I wudda been, a good cop.
PS. I know that some of my Swedish readers might have something to say about the title of this post, but I used it to draw in the readers!