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The Kindness of Strangers

People's willingness to help someone during a chance encounter on a city street varies considerably around the world

Robert Levine

I'll never forget a lesson that I learned as a boy growing up in New York City. One day, when I was perhaps six years old, I was walking with my father on a crowded midtown street. All of a sudden, the normal flow of pedestrian traffic backed up as people tried to avoid a large object on the sidewalk. To my astonishment, the object turned out to be a human being, a man lying unconscious against a building. Not one of the passing herd seemed to notice that the obstacle was a man. Certainly no one made eye contact. As we shuffled by, my father—the model of a loving, caring gentleman—pointed to a bottle in a paper bag and told me that the poor soul on the sidewalk "just needed to sleep it off." When the drunken man began to ramble senselessly, my father warned me not to go near, saying "You never know how he'll react." I soon came to see that day's lesson as a primer for urban adaptation.

Figure 1. Illustration from a Victorian-era children's Bible . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Yet many years later I had a very different experience while visiting a market in Rangoon. I had spent the previous 12 months traveling in poor Asian cities, but even by those standards this was a scene of misery. In addition to being dreadfully poor, the residents had to contend with the sweltering climate, ridiculously dense crowds and a stiff wind blowing dust everywhere. Suddenly a man carrying a huge bag of peanuts called out in pain and fell to the ground. I then witnessed an astonishing piece of choreography. Appearing to have rehearsed their motions many times, a half dozen sellers ran from their stalls to help, leaving unattended what may have been the totality of their possessions. One put a blanket under the man's head; another opened his shirt; a third questioned him carefully about the pain; a fourth fetched water; a fifth kept onlookers from crowding around too closely; a sixth ran for help. Within minutes, a doctor arrived, and two other locals joined in to assist. The performance could have passed for a final exam at paramedic school.

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