A contagion of kindness
When I was in Omaha recently, I made a terrible faux pas. That means I put my foot in my mouth, which, I discovered, is even worse than putting your finger in your nose. After studying the menu in a four-star steak house for 10 minutes or so ... I ordered salmon.
Now, the closest salmon stream to Nebraska is probably 900 miles and two continents away, while the best corn-fed beef was grazing in the parking lot right outside the restaurant.
I got a quizzical stare from my host, who seemed to wonder, “Where did this dimwit come from?”
You learn something new every day. I also learned there’s more to the Midwest than corn-fed beef. The city that Warren Buffett calls home was a unique cultural experience for me because the people, even complete strangers, were kind and courteous. Kindness often takes us by surprise, and a little kindness makes life a lot easier.
You’d think that with all the red meat Nebraskans eat they’d be as ornery as New Yorkers shoving to get on the IRT at 42nd Street, but they look at life differently and take time to stop and smell the roses, along with the cow manure.
The difference is their traditional Midwestern values, such as honesty, integrity and generosity. If they can do it, why can’t the rest of us who are living lives of quiet desperation?
There’s another world, 1,245.2 miles from New York. When I got on the elevator, I was greeted with a chorus of “Good mornings” from people I didn’t know. At first, I thought they wanted to sell me Geico insurance, but they were just being friendly.
I’m not accustomed to seeing everyone smiling in the morning because I’m a frowner by nature. I was born with the edges of my mouth pointing down, so smiling takes a bit of effort.
When I sneezed, someone sprinted across the hotel lobby to say, “God bless you.” He was so enthusiastic I thought he was going to give me his handkerchief and offer me an interest-free loan.
When I sneezed again, there was another “God bless you” at no additional cost. In the Northeast, we place a limit on blessings. At best, there’s one per person. However, most people are afraid to say anything politically incorrect. They’re also afraid some homicidal maniac might go wild if they make eye contact.
We live in a society where common courtesy is a rarity. Part of the problem is kindness isn’t appreciated. If you hold the door for someone, you’re often ignored — and a rude response doesn’t encourage people to act courteously.
Kindness, though, is contagious. After three days in Nebraska, I was behaving differently and it felt good. Instead of stampeding over little old ladies to get on the elevator first, I paused and let others go. I even started conversations with strangers and held more doors than the doorman at the Waldorf.
The experience convinced me we can bring America back, but it may cost us. We have to look at the problem pragmatically. In the Midwest, people are naturally kind, but in the Northeast, we need incentives. Since we respond to financial rewards, maybe it’s time to start paying people to be courteous. Money is a great motivator. I call my plan “Kindness for Capitalists.”
Society will change overnight because the unemployed, the under-compensated, the over-compensated and retirees will be able to support themselves by performing acts of kindness. And all those traders who didn’t get bonuses can make up the loss by showing common courtesy on Wall Street. The federal budget deficit will get worse, but we’ll be a lot happier ... and richer.
Yes, I learned a few important lessons on my Omaha trip: Never be afraid to do an act of kindness, with or without compensation, and never be afraid to order a good piece of steak.
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.