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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

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New York may not have ranked lowest in our global study, as it had in our earlier tests of helpful acts in various U.S. cities, but it came close. Overall, New Yorkers placed 22nd in our list of 23. They ranked 22nd on tests of whether people would retrieve a dropped pen and of whether they would assist someone with a hurt leg. They came out a little below the average (13th) when it came to helping a blind person to cross the street.

Figure 7. Economic productivity appears to have some influence . . .Click to Enlarge Image

We also learned that there may be a difference between helping and civility. In places where people walked fast, they were less likely to be civil even when they did offer assistance. In New York, helping gestures often had a particularly hard edge. During the dropped-pen experiment, for example, helpful New Yorkers would typically call to the experimenter that he had dropped his pen, then quickly move on in the opposite direction. In contrast, helpers in laid-back Rio—where a leisurely gait and simpático personality are ways of life—were more likely to return the pen personally, sometimes running to catch up with the experimenter. In the blind-person trials, helpful New Yorkers would often wait until the light turned green, tersely announce that it was safe to cross and then quickly walk ahead. In the friendlier cities, helpers were more likely to offer to walk the experimenter across the street, and they sometimes asked if he then needed further assistance. Indeed, one of our experimenters' problems in these place was how to separate from particularly caring strangers.

In general, it seemed as though New Yorkers are willing to offer help only when they could do so with the assurance of no further contact, as if to say "I'll meet my social obligation but, make no mistake, this is as far as we go together." How much of this attitude is motivated by fear and how much by simply not wanting to waste time is hard to know. But in more helpful cities, like Rio, it often seemed to us that human contact is the very motive for helping. People were more likely to give aid with a smile and to welcome the "thank you" our experimenter returned.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of uncivil helping involved one of the tests we attempted and then abandoned, the lost-letter experiment. In many cities, I received envelopes that had clearly been opened. In almost all of these cases, the finder had then resealed it or mailed it in a new envelope. Sometimes they attached notes, usually apologizing for opening our letter. Only from New York did I receive an envelope which had its entire side ripped and left open. On the back of the letter the helper had scribbled, in Spanish: "Hijo de puta ir[r]esposable"—which I discovered when it was translated for me, makes a very nasty accusation about my mother. Below that was added a straightforward English-language expletive, which I could readily understand. It is interesting to picture this angry New Yorker, perhaps cursing my irresponsibility all the while he was walking to the mailbox, yet for some reason feeling compelled to take the time to perform his social duty for a stranger he already hated. Ironically, this rudely returned letter counted in the helping column in scoring New York. A most antipático test subject, as the Brazilians would say.

Compare this response to those in Tokyo, where several finders hand-delivered the letters to their addressees. Or, consider a note I received on the back of a returned letter from the most helpful city in our earlier study of U.S. cities, Rochester, New York:

Hi. I found this on my windshield where someone put it with a note saying they found it next to my car. I thought it was a parking ticket. I'm putting this in the mailbox 11/19. Tell whoever sent this to you it was found on the bridge near/across from the library and South Ave. Garage about 5 p.m. on 11/18.

P. S. Are you related to any Levines in New Jersey or Long Island? L. L.

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