The kindness of strangers

Receiving kindness is warming, not to say enriching, provided of course that it is welcome. It is not so nice when an act of ‘kindness’ is unwanted or perhaps even a threat. Real kindness occurs between friends or workmates and is based on feelings that are mutual. It can also be part of relationships with those in the caring professions such as nurses or ambulance staff. In these circumstances there is logic, with behaviour aimed at helping and supporting those unable to manage normally and who are vulnerable. In such instances the offers of kindness are one way.

But what about kindness proffered as part of a service relationship – as is classically practised by waiters or shopkeepers? Unless it is excessive or intrusive, receiving kindness in such a way feels nice, and whether it arises by dint of the staff’s courteousness, thoughtfulness, politeness, good manners, or business acumen, is unimportant. However, things do begin to matter when the kindness extends to the offer of gifts. I find this type of kindness a complete turn off. I would hate to think I was being manipulated as part of some business strategy designed to buy my custom. This I can do without.

My brush with shop assistant kindness all started one Saturday afternoon in France as I watched my treasured iPhone slide slowly into the bath. One minute I was using the phone for its French-English dictionary app; next minute I was fishing it out from under the bubbles. My hopes were raised when the screen flickered but soon nothing, despite efforts with cotton wool buds and a towel. On the advice of a techie son, the SIM card was removed and dabbed dry and, when it was put it into my old ‘Nokia’, phoning was restored. But bereft of my dictionary, my texting and emailing capacity and my up-to-date address book, it was back to 2009!

Three days later in London, I told my tale to the Orange shop. I handed over the mobile with its misty screen and after some ‘diagnostic’ tweaking the asistant leant forward and whispered (this was too serious for others to hear) that my phone was not salvageable and, while he could offer a replacement, this would cost me (I was not insured) several hundred pounds. The problem was that it would have to be an upgrade. Then he discretely asked me whether I had considered seeking help from an Apple shop. Apparently they had some good deals on replacements.

The Apple store in Central London was very busy. Entering the shop was like descending into an ants’ nest and the ants all seemed so very young. I explained the submersion to a woman sporting an electronic clipboard. She replied that I would have to come back tomorrow for an appointment and then helped me negotiate a screen that allowed me to make a booking. She advised me to arrive an hour early and bring something to read!

Despite coming early, I was not called until fifteen minutes after my allotted time. At the counter a young assistant introduced himself, apologising both for the delay and for my having to come back. He seemed to know everything. At the time I was holding the phone in my right hand and as he put his hand forward, as though to take the phone I panicked, thinking the gesture meant he wanted to shake my hand. I quickly put the phone in my pocket and shook his hand warmly. The muddle seemed so comical I smiled, almost laughed.

I followed him to his workspace and within no time he confirmed that the phone was irreparable. Then, after telling me how I reminded him of his father (or was it his grandfather), he offered to replace the phone free of charge, no strings attached. He explained that he had discretion to do this for some customers and, as I had been so polite, he would like to return the favour. He unwrapped the new phone and over the next hour transferred all the addresses from my Nokia, re-established my dictionary and then re-connected my email. The gift had just got better again.

I asked him on what grounds he had judged me to be polite. It was, he said, because when we met I had not grumbled about the delay and, more importantly, because I had smiled and had shaken him warmly by the hand – both rare courtesies these days.

From the way he conducted himself, I have no doubt that the assistant’s generosity was an act of genuine kindness. It would be awful to think I might have tricked him into it!

One comment on “The kindness of strangers
  1. Jack Humphrys says:

    Your adventures at the Orange shop and at the Apple shop reminded me of a story that a Russian friend likes to tell at dinner parties.

    As a boy, his grandmother sent him with a 1,000 rouble note to buy a cabbage for soup. On arriving at the shop and finding the shelves bare, he asked, “Do you have no cabbages?”

    “This is the bread shop, the shop with no cabbages is next door,” was the shopkeeper’s helpful reply.

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