Friday, August 12, 2011

Drop in an Ocean of People

Today, we finish our journey with a late afternoon flight home from Chicago. While we are disconnected from our customary and numerous electronic links, I want to share a post I wrote a couple years ago upon the occasion of another cross-country trip.

Anyone who recognizes the acronym RAOK knows how futile it seems for one person to effect change among billions—and how positive some people are that such change can start with one act. To me, that one act seems to resemble the proverbial drop in the ocean, but to RAOK enthusiasts, it is the first step in getting the ball rolling.

RAOK believers do things like tell the toll booth attendant, “Here’s enough money for my toll—and keep the extra to pay for the driver behind me, too,” then drive off, serenely confident that they have made the world a better place. (Meanwhile, the driver behind zooms to catch up, swerving dangerously in front of oncoming traffic in a vain attempt to see who did such a crazy thing.)

I’m in Houston now. While my Houston-bred husband is properly impressed with the current size of the city he ditched 20 years ago, my New York Metro roots still balk at calling this “immensity.” The head count is diffused over a wide, non-descript plain of people. Even so, it is enough people to make me wonder whether any of them could be convinced to line up, just so, to replicate the domino effect.

Chris (said Texas-boy husband) has for many years made it his habit, when we travel, to initiate one of those drops in the ocean of people. He picked up this idea from a speaker at a homeschool conference: take a candy bar, add a simple message of gratitude, and pass it to anyone helping us on our trip. With a computer-printed label slapped on a Hershey bar, he is armed to distribute gratitude to bus drivers, skycaps, and airline flight crews.

His message, following a big, colorful “Thank You,” states: “When you are away from home, it is nice to know the people you trust for your comfort, safety and well-being are professionals who are dedicated to their jobs and the people they serve. God bless you for what you do every day!” Underneath, he inserts the name of each one of our family members.

Simple, huh?

What happens next gets completely complicated. It must have to do with the psychological underpinnings all we mortals carry around, invisible, underneath our pasty, face-masked exteriors. We’ve seen airline attendants, particularly, wax eloquent, brag about us incessantly over the intercom system, flock en masse to the row where we’re seated to personally express profuse gratitude.

It all had started getting overwhelming for me. I have a difficult time with my personal radar, determining sincerity from strangers, so my cynical self felt over-modulated at times in past encounters. When one attendant, a few years ago, came up to pass us a hand-written note—and evidently had tears in her eyes—I began to wonder. Some others confessed to us that they had just completed one leg of their journey which included a particularly intractable personality, and that they “really needed this.” It made me begin to wonder about the working conditions of these airline attendants—about the people these professionals are paid to encounter in their line of work every day.

But this trip took the prize. After completing what now is our customary travel ritual, we looked up at our seats to see three attendants beaming their thanks down at us. Nothing unusual here…until one attendant said, “In all my 16 years of flying, I have never had anyone thank me for what I do in this way.”



It got me to thinking about all the people we encounter in our everyday life: the toll-takers, the coffee-makers, the ticket punchers, the floor-sweepers. Anyone? Anyone thanking them?

More than that, anyone recognizing them as real people? I always have tried to make the bubble-break buffer zone in the midst of the time-squeeze routine of normal stuff like ordering coffee to say, “How are you?” and mean it. Mean it, because that person is a real person with a job that forces the rest of us to treat him or her like an extension of a machine rather than a real, flesh and blood copy of the same stuff that went into making us. How incredible that we can become so busy that we can’t take the time—by our actions—to remember that.

And so, RAOK—random acts of kindness—may indeed be the salve needed to bring people back from the brink of morphing into machines. Our business environment pays tribute to bosses who recognize their employees or professionals who affirm their clients—but what about customers who appreciate the service they receive in the countless ways we’ve come to expect in our typical work day? Yes, it’s their job, but isn’t it handled a bit nicer when it’s a person performing the duties?

I’d say 16 years is too long a time to let our free-market service professionals go unthanked. We could all use adding a couple words to our vocabulary and dispensing them liberally: “Thank you” for a job well done.

I’m looking forward to a glimpse of the domino effect resulting from the first barista keeling over in shock of some long-owed appreciation. This is a people-wave we could all look forward to surfing.

1 comment:

  1. My husband was an RN in an inner city trauma center ER and he said one day he would like to hear someone say Thank you instead of F--- you.

    I always thank people who have helped me even if they were only doing their job.


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