Sunday, April 29, 2018

Showing kindness without thanks

Winter weather had finally given over to a glimpse of sunshine in the Boston area. Nevertheless, the subway trains were running particularly slow one April morning. At regular intervals on M.N.'s ride to work, the train would remain a few extra minutes at the station with a barely audible message alerting passengers to a "schedule adjustment" or "traffic ahead," although the latter of these seems a given for any train on any track ever.

While riders seemed a bit happier than a few weeks earlier when they sloshed through snow and muck to catch the train, patience was wearing a bit thin because of the delays. Finally, about halfway to M.N.'s destination, a subway employee helped an elderly gentleman using a support cane onto the train. A few passengers moved and offered their seats to the man who appeared to be blind, an assumption that was confirmed when he sat down directly across from M.N., and said in a loud voice: "I'm blind. I hate the world."

A young woman sitting next to the gentleman asked him if he needed any help, to which he responded, "I don't know you" in a response that sounded somewhat perturbed.

The doors closed and the train finally made its way to the next station.

There wasn't a delay at the stop and M.N. was concerned that the man might miss his stop. As they were about to arrive at the next station, M.N. shouted across the way, "What stop do you want to get off at?"

The man responded, "Who are you?" again sounding perturbed.

"I'm the guy you told you were blind and hated the world," M.N. responded.

The gentleman laughed. Loudly.

When they finally pulled into M.N.'s stop for work, he saw that the gentleman got up as well.

"Do you need help?" M.N. asked him.

"Yes, I'm going downstairs to catch the bus?"

As they exited the train M.N. offered the man his arm, which he took, and they started walking.

"Can't you walk any faster?" the man asked M.N.

So M.N. picked up the pace. They arrived at the lower-level bus stop.

"OK, we're here," M.N. said.

The man removed his armed, grumbled "yeah," and walked away.

M.N. was a bit taken aback that the gentleman seemed brusque and didn't offer as much as a "thank you" for M.N.'s efforts.

Now, M.N. wonders if he was wrong to offer help.

Offering help to someone who seemed in need was an appropriate and kind gesture. If the man didn't want the help, he could have refused it. But he accepted the offer and M.N. helped him get to his desired location.

The polite and gracious thing would have been for the man to thank M.N. But if M.N.'s motivation was to do something helpful to someone who appeared to need help, then that act alone should have been sufficient. While a thank you might have made M.N. feel good, not getting one doesn't diminish the kindness he tried to show.

Getting acknowledged for a good act shouldn't be the primary driving force if the desire is truly to show kindness or to help someone in need. The right thing is to know that sometimes showing kindness to a stranger is its own reward. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

I wanted to comment about MN's poor attitude regarding his experience with the blind man. Those of us who have their sight should remember those who have little or no eyesight and should not comment negatively regarding the person who was blind not showing a good attitude. If we were blind, we might likewise show poor attitude about this affliction.

Anonymous said...

As Mr. Seglin said, "know that sometimes showing kindness to a stranger is its own reward",

I'll add that doing the right thing is never wrong.

Perhaps the blind gentleman is angry because he's blind - and perhaps the kindness of others, including strangers, can help to lessen his anger.

Anonymous said...

I've experienced the kind of thing B.N. did, and in reflection, realized that I had two knee-jerk reactions; the first was to immediately help someone who could use it, or to say, "Excuse me" if I accidentally bumped another person in a doorway, and the second was "surprise" if that other person offered no acknowledgement of my help or apology. My first action was unconditional, and in no way "required" a reciprocal "thanks." But my second reaction is based on the absence of something I would do if the circumstances were reversed. I will continue to have both reactions . . .because that's me. I will never say, "I'll help you if you thank me afterwards!"