Just a few days ago, I had the supreme misfortune of encountering a bitter woman on the streets of Manhattan. The meeting was momentary, but for some strange and at first incomprehensible reason, it stuck with me. It clung to the crevices of my mind and nestled itself among a host of other seemingly inconsequential memories—the elusive, reverberant flashes of walking through this bustling metropolis that have now been relegated to commonplace status.
Short story long, I brushed past said woman while on my way to meet my expectant younger brother outside his favorite bakery. Sure, I could have slowed my pace as I approached her. But it was cold, I was running an egregious seven and a half minutes late, it was his birthday, and—perhaps the most incriminating—I just wasn’t paying much attention. What’s more is that it was a busy Monday afternoon in shop-stop-and-gossip-ville (more endearingly referred to as the Upper East Side), which meant that my level of patience was running notably low while everyone around me was running notably quickly.
I mistakenly bumped into her, causing a disruption that lasted a mere two-point-something seconds; it was the same inconsequential collision of human frames that takes place at each and every turn on New York City streets.
She huffed and puffed and shouted several somethings about me being an “inconsiderate teenage jerk.” I walked on after a moment, unsure whether I was more upset about the scolding or the fact that she had failed to notice I had turned 20 a whopping 11 days prior to our less than pleasant encounter.
It upset me to see this woman treat such an ordinary accident as though it were the ultimate sacrilege. She was just being plain old mean—that’s all there was to it.
As much as I tried to brush it off as a quotidian blip in my day, I couldn’t. Those mere moments of unreciprocated shouting really got me thinking about what it means to be mean—when, why, and how we do it.
I sometimes get upset when I shouldn’t. I make a great many jokes at others’ expense. I don’t always extend a helping hand when I can clearly see it’s needed. There’s a little mean in all of us, I think. But what I can’t seem to figure out is how much kindness there is.
Kindness seems to be a rare thing nowadays. I find that whenever I experience even the briefest and most basic benevolence from another person, I am acutely aware of it. It stands out against the rest of my daily encounters like a normal-smelling individual on the fourth floor of Butler. It’s almost jarring, in a way. “Wow, that person was really nice,” I’ll say to myself.
It happens in the most ordinary of circumstances. Someone holds the McBain entrance door open or offers to help with a heavy package. Oftentimes, it’s as simple as a toothy smile and a nod on a crowded train. There’s this one lady who works the register at Milano who, with but a few helpful gestures and a sprinkling of laughter, never fails to make me feel as though I have just been wrapped in happiness and sent on my way.
There is a very particular kind of pleasure that this sort of niceness—simply for niceness’ sake—imparts. It’s a shame we don’t get to experience it more often. It runs so contrary to our current culture as students in a competitive environment that it has come to be looked upon as an almost-defect. When a fellow student exhibits kindness of a detectable degree, we question his or her behavior, we think about all of the possible reasons he or she could have for being nice. We wonder what could be in it for him or her, what he or she is looking to receive in return. Where self-serving motives are not at play, we are quick to characterize beneficence as over-eagerness, as social awkwardness, as just uncomfortable and—heaven forbid—uncool.
Being nice just isn’t in anymore. The tables have turned on the happy-go-lucky. We attach a peculiar positive quality to aloof composure, to disinterestedness, to taciturn, straight-faced passivity. We are encouraged to act as though we are neither impressed with nor excited about anything, lest that be deemed “caring too much.” Maybe this is why we so often complain about an absence of fellow-feeling at Columbia—we don’t value those who pursue these ends by way of being kind. This turn away from consistent kindness has understandably led to greater distance between ourselves and those around us.
Thankfully, the chasm is easier to surmount than we might think. Victor Borge famously said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” So we should stop wasting our time lamenting the impersonality of our generation when it is well within our means to solve the problem. It should come as no surprise to us that as we’ve stopped letting people in, they have finally stopped knocking.
If it is a more widespread spirit of unity that we really seek, then we should first assess the behaviors and dispositions that we assign value to. For it’s only natural that we will seek to model ourselves, to a lesser or greater extent, after what our peers consider to be interesting or desirable. The solution doesn’t lie in constantly fighting our inclinations toward being accepted. It lies instead in restructuring the framework in which we operate, in adjusting the very things we esteem so that ultimately, niceness may just become the norm. It’s as easy as smiling at a passerby. Baby steps.
Nika Madyoon is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in political science and concentrating in philosophy and business management. She is a former editorial page deputy editor. Mad Universe runs alternate Thursdays.
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