Create a Chain of Kindness

by Tammy Strobel on June 13, 2011

A few months ago, I was riding my bike home after a morning of volunteering. Rather than going home I decided to change course and write at one of my favorite coffee shops. The coffee shop is quiet and it looks out over the Willamette River. The view is incredible and I love the atmosphere.

I walked into the shop, set my bag down at the nearest table, and began stripping off my rain gear. Once again, I was sending REI a silent thank you for their waterproof clothing. Throughout the morning, the rain came down in sheets. As I was cycling to the coffee shop water dripped off my face and clothing, but none of it seeped through my rain gear.

The barista gave me a half smile and I tried to be as friendly as possible. She seemed extremely downcast and wasn’t in the mood to chat about coffee or the weather. So I ordered my coffee, a brownie, and plopped down in my chair. It was time to get some writing done.

About an hour later, I looked up from my computer screen and saw the barista standing outside talking on her cell phone. She had tears streaming down her face and pang of empathy shot through my body.  When she came back into the shop, she seemed okay. But when a few more customers came into the shop, she started crying and ran into the restroom.

One of the other patrons looked at me and said, “Ohhh no, I feel horrible. She was sobbing so hard. I wonder what happened?”

Another customer said, “I don’t know, but it must be really personal.”

Soon the barista emerged from the bathroom and one of the patrons asked, “Can I give you a hug?”

She nodded meekly and apologized for crying. She rang up customers in line and then turned to me and said, “I think I’ll have to close the shop. I’m so sorry.”

I looked at her and said, “Don’t worry. It’s not a problem.” Then I went onto say, “I don’t want to be rude, but are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help?”

She replied in a shaky voice, “Thanks for asking. But I’ll be okay. I have friends who will listen. There’s nothing you can do to help.”

As I packed up my stuff, I was reminded of the importance of kindness. Recent research shows that hearing about kind acts makes people feel better and increases their own desire to perform good deeds. In essence, we can create a chain of kindness in our lives and in the lives of others. Some examples include, smiling at someone who seems sad, donating blood, helping a stranger with a computer problem, or giving a homeless person $20.

Being kind to the barista in the coffee shop didn’t take much effort. Yet ten years ago, I probably would have been put off by her demeanor. The “old Tammy” wouldn’t have gone back to this little coffee shop because I wouldn’t have been impressed by their customer service.

It’s so easy to be annoyed by the guy tail-gating you in his car, or angry at the cashier who was rude to you in the grocery store. But the thing is, you never know what kind of emotional baggage people are carrying around with them. Instead of operating from a place of reaction, why not operate from a place of kindness? Why not give people the benefit of doubt?

I don’t know what happened to the barista in the coffee shop. I’ve been back a few times since I met her and she hasn’t been working. Even if I did see the barista again, I wouldn’t ask for the details of why she was upset. It would be too awkward and it’s none of my business.

But I keep thinking about that rainy day a few months ago. I hope the barista is okay and I hope my very small attempt at being kind and patient made her day a little brighter.

Parting Words . . .

Even if we don’t know the outcome of our actions, it’s important to remember that we all depend on the kindness of strangers.

Micro-action: Consider performing five acts of kindness this week. These acts can be large or small and they don’t have to be for the same person. For example, consider donating blood, writing a thank you letter or taking a friend out for coffee.

1 Lee June 13, 2011

Tammy, your stories make your lessons so personal and uplifting.

I’ve found personal, thoughtful thank-you notes to be an incredibly powerful act. Although I remember chugging out these notes after Christmas/Birthdays during my childhood so that I could play outside again, as an adult it’s these same notes but with more honesty and personalization that have really helped keep some relationships strong and mend others.

Have a wonderful week and thank you for the great writing.

2 Tammy June 15, 2011

@Lee – I’m a huge fan of thank you notes too. They are fun to write and I love receiving them. :) Thanks for sharing!

3 jm June 13, 2011

A few years ago (during my time as a poor, struggling student) I couldnt afford to miss a day of work so went in the very next day after a terrible, horrible, life shattering event. I was there to make and serve people sandwiches but spent the whole day simultaneously holding back tears and trying to remember how to breath. A rude, pushy regular came in and started ordering me around so I snapped back that I was busy and she’d need to wait her turn. She yelled at me then complained to my supervisor. I wanted to die.

I try to always remember that when Im getting frustrated at someone whose just doing their job- that i have no idea what might be going on in their life and i need to just give them a break. That lady made the most painful day of my life just a little bit worse & i never want to do that to anyone! You just never know….

4 EJ Hunter June 13, 2011

Thank you so much for the insight! :) I think that others remember stuff that happens, and remember that smile, or that nod, or various kind act for a long, long time. I had it happen in my own life – I gave water and food to a family who was flooded out and on the side of the road… ran into them through other circumstances later, and she remembered me. “oh, you’re the one who helped me out” .. I think that your barista will remember. :)

5 Leigh June 13, 2011

Tammy, thanks for this sweet and timely reminder as we start our week (people are always in bad moods on Mondays!). Since I left my full-time desk job 4 years ago, I have become far more tolerant of other peoples’ moods, on the road, in class, stores, etc. A coincidence? lol…

6 Mollie June 13, 2011

This is a lovely story. It made me tear up. In the volunteer work I’ve done this year with kids, my favorite moments are when one will out of no where run up and hug me. It makes me feel so good knowing that I somehow impacted them at that moment. But what they don’t know is that their sweet gesture made ME feel so much better, too! I will make sure I do the five acts of kindness this week. Thanks for the inspiratation.

7 Cara June 13, 2011

Lovely post :)

This is one of the things I have been working on recently, and your comment that ‘The “old Tammy” wouldn’t have gone back to this little coffee shop because I wouldn’t have been impressed by their customer service’ was something I could particularly relate to. This is the kind of negative thinking that I am in the process of shedding, and this post has really helped reinforce my desire to become a better person.

On a selfish note, not only are acts of kindness good for others, but they are also beneficial to yourself. I have found that the more I allow yourself to be kind to others instead of judging them, the more at peace I become with myself.

8 Megan Swicegood June 13, 2011

Love this story! I’ve had the reverse happen to me – when a barista has taken just a few extra moments to make me feel special and make sure I was okay. It’s so important to be kind. We live in such close quarters and run into so many people each day that we can’t afford not to be kind and understanding.

9 Kristy Powell June 13, 2011

Tammy, your gracious heart is a most beautiful thing. And the way you speak of kindness is what I understand as a gracious heart or posture toward others and the outside world. I’m not so bad at this when it comes to individuals but I have a really hard time remaining gracious towards anonymous persons (say the CEO of a chemical plant or gas company or someone of that sort). Not that I even expect that of myself, but I have a hard time being gracious towards my family and friends that make excuses for those sorts of companies/efforts/behaviors and then I find myself angry toward a family member for instance. I know this isn’t what you’re talking about here but just reading this about kindness, (and after the convo. I so clearly just had with my sister about Dow Chemical based on my comment thus far) I couldn’t help but feel challenged to respond to her more graciously also. I really struggle with being gracious or kind in the midst of my convictions.

That would be a lovely post in fact! I’d love to hear how you deal with this. Actually, it reminds me of your post a while back about shopping with your family. But anyhow… that is a hard thing for me, and likely others who are all about what you’re about (thus your readers) and being wise as you are, I’d love to hear your approach… even if it isn’t any better than mine currently.

Thanks, as always, for the encouragement to be more mindful and kind.

10 Tammy June 15, 2011

Hey Kristy – Thanks for the comment and kind words.

I agree with Gwen’s approach on this topic. I have a lot of people in my life who don’t agree with my political view points and that’s okay. I always try to operate from a place of compassion and non-judgement, even if I don’t agree. Of course I’m not perfect and I do get frustrated. But over the years, I’ve found that having thoughtful debates is the most powerful form of persuasions.

Also, for me one of the best ways to vent my frustration is through activism and volunteering. That might sound like an odd juxtaposition, but I feel like it’s the only way I can really make a difference in the world. There’s no sense in arguing when I can use my energy to help people. I hope that makes sense.

11 Sarah June 15, 2011

Thank you for addressing this, Tammy. It’s so important. It is a personal frustration of mine that we are all so angry over political issues these days, fighting against our imaginary opponents. My opinions on many topics have changed over the years after listening to people’s perspectives that were surprisingly illuminating, and from people I had once judged harshly.

I wish we could all be more open to solving problems than dismissing others through name-calling and assumptions. It’s just not fair to assume someone holds an opinion because they are a fool or evil. This is just lazy thinking and untrue and we’re never going to learn this way.

12 Sunday June 13, 2011

I work on this daily. It shouldn’t be difficult, and maybe with enough practice it won’t be. It’s true: you feel better when you act from kindness than when you act from anger so why not make it the default. Love your posts, Tammy!

13 Roberta June 13, 2011

@Cara and Tammy – I, too, am trying to shed years of unkindness due to my innate fear of life and my anger for not doing what I set myself up to do. My parents were kind people – I want to be like them. @Megan – I had the best experience at my fav bakery/coffee shop. The manager/baristo (?) stopped to chat, saying how they missed seeing me. When I told him I was really having to watch my budget, he understood and then invited me to come and just be there without buying anything – they wanted to see me. Made my day :). Kindness rules. Thanks for a wonderful post.

14 Caroline June 13, 2011

Small – but – significant. I agree ~ it feels much better to operate from a place of kindness, and not make assumptions about others.
It reminds me of a recent moment in which I (inadvertently) made a cheerful-yet- critical remark to one friend about another. I felt horrible as soon as I said it…and I realized that I’d stepped away from a place of kindness and into one of judgment.
Thank you for this gentle call to kindness, Tammy :)

15 kelli June 13, 2011

thank you for sharing this lovely post. xo

16 Liz @ Creative Liberty June 13, 2011

Great story. We really don’t know where people are coming from sometimes. And most of the time, compassion toward the “negative” behavior of another is appropriate. Thanks for sharing.

17 Brandon June 13, 2011

Tammy, I really enjoyed this post. It’s amazing what a little compassion and empathy will do to make a frustrating situation workable. I’m a big believer in putting out positive energy even when it’s hard. I’ve been amazed how people have reacted to things like a simple smile or an expression of gratitude, not to mention how good it feels inside when you brighten someone’s day by simple acts like this.

Great meeting you at WDS also! Thank you so much for helping make the experience so amazing. :)

18 Tammy June 15, 2011

@Brandon – Thanks It was great meeting you too. :) WDS was so amazing!

19 Meg June 13, 2011

What a great story and thank you for the helpful reminder to be kind to those around us. We all get so caught up in our day that I think we forget this simple task sometimes. Just the other day my bf was getting a little case of road rage and I said….. you don’t know what kind of day that guy is having or what is going on in his life. It also helps to remind each other of this as well. I think we have all been there and to just have someone wake us up helps. Great post! Thank you for sharing your story.

20 Karen T. June 13, 2011

Loved your post, Tammy.

I appreciate what Kristy Powell (above) added to the conversation, though. Sometimes it is really easy to be kind to an acquaintance or a stranger, and then come home after a long day and just let it all out to a spouse or child at home. It’s true that we all sometimes need to vent, we need trusted loved ones who will let us be our less-than-perfect-but-totally-real selves. But I admit I’m sometimes guilty of taking advantage of that close relationship to be less than my best, and I don’t always apologize for it afterwards (as if thinking that it’s part of their “job” to put up with my baggage). Now, of course there’s a balance to this — of course we need to be able to rant, or complain, or simply be a little whiny, sometimes. But I feel inspired to make my five acts of kindness this week to my family members — the ones that don’t always see the benefit of my “sweet side” and who sometimes have to live with the brunt of my weaknesses. I’m thinking of doing one of my daughter’s most hated chores for her (no telling; I’ll just let her find out it’s already done), getting up and making a cooked breakfast for my husband (he leaves for work at 5:30), that kind of thing.

Thanks for the wonderful inspiration!

21 Janet June 14, 2011

Inspired by Karen T’s comment. I sometimes feel like a different person to my nearest and dearest (and not a better person). I will try harder!! The other positive behaviour I have been trying to do lately is give my full attention to my children when I see them for the first time in the morning, after school etc even if it is for just a minute, is too really show them that I am pleased to see them, love them and I am listening to them……sometimes in the rush of getting ready for work, cooking dinner etc it can be too easy to dismiss these little encounters…..just a thought.

Tammy, I have just come across your blog and story and I am seriously inspired to finally take some positive action towards this concept that I have been thinking about for some time. I don’t think I am a rampant consumer now but still am weighed down with stuff that I am going to rid myself, my family and our home of. Thanks,

22 Kate June 14, 2011

Thanks Tammy, wonderful post! Definitely something to think about and I think most of us could do better to be mindful of others every day. Thank you for sharing.

23 Gwyn Michael June 14, 2011

I too have learned never to assume I know what’s up when people are less than, and choose kindness over irritation or judgement.

In response to Kristy Powell and Karen T. I have even learned to keep my cool when my opinions are challenged concerning big biz, the environment, or government. I am happy to have a conversation and defend my position, but it is not for me to tell another what to think. I believe it is easier to win people over with gentle persuasion and by example than to force it.

I believe that that corruption and destructive living can’t last, and either change will occur through the actions of those seeking alternative lifestyles and work solutions, by those taking radical action, or it won’t and things will end badly. I see at my job to the best I can and my best is always choosing kindness and loving action.

Do I have bad days, get bitchy, and lash out? Of course, but I always apologize one way or another.

Thanks for a very thoughtful post Tammy!

24 tammy June 14, 2011

when i was young, my father told us a story about himself. to teach us to have compassion at an early age.
he was a young man who was always an impatient, hot-headed, type A personality! he was in a movie theatre with his date and she wanted popcorn. they were sitting in the middle of the crowded isle. everyone he passed in front of moved their legs so that he could maneuver more easily. at the end of the row was a young man. he didn’t make a move to try to help my dad in any way. my dad said out loud “well don’t trouble yourself to move fella!” and proceeded to climb past him into the aisle.
when the movie was over, the usher brought a wheelchair for the “fella” and had to lift him into it.
you just never know. ever. people who aren’t smiling may be just barely holding back tears.
i not only learned from this story, but i admired my father even more for telling it about himself.

25 Tammy June 15, 2011

@Tammy – WOW! That is a very powerful story. Thanks for sharing. :)

26 Nadya Booyse June 15, 2011

So absolutely true. Even the littlest thing counts, but we have these rules in our heads:
> look out for con people
> don’t give money to beggars
> don’t allow the other cars to pass you
etc. etc. etc.
We forget to let our hearts guide us, to be part of the moment, and do what we can when we find ourselves in a moment calling for it.

27 Kitty June 15, 2011

This was a really timely post for me to read. Thanks especially for this reminder, Tammy: “Instead of operating from a place of reaction, why not operate from a place of kindness?” I aspire to do this, but I struggle with it every day. I even put a sticker on the steering wheel of my car to help me control my road rage; it says “Shed light, not blood.” Even with that reminder literally under my nose, I still get frustrated and react with judgment and anger all too frequently. Every little supportive reminder from people like you adds up, and helps me learn the lesson. Thank you.

28 Marc June 15, 2011

A while back I wreaked my car and it was not drivable. It was a Sunday and the tow truck hauled my car to my house and said I would have to get another tow truck on Monday to take it to a shop. As I was arguing with the driver, my neighbor walks into my garage and comes out with my rotary mower. By the time I was finished with the driver, my lawn was almost completely mowed. I walked up to my neighbor, we had lived next door for years. But I didn’t even know his name. He said I looked like I needed some kindness and insisted on finishing the lawn. I did need the kind act. We are good friends now.

29 Tammy June 16, 2011

@Marc – WOW, that is a fantastic story! I love hearing stuff like that. It makes me smile. :)

30 Ryan June 16, 2011

Great post as usual, Tammy. In my own experience, I’ve gone from an ESTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale (some 15 years ago) to one of the more compassionate and even introverted types, depending on the day it seems. But I’m definitely on the more mellow side now.

Five years ago I made a conscious effort to live more simply and gave up having a car. I’ve been car-free and biking ever since (year-round) up here in Calgary, AB, Canada. I started out as a hot-headed cyclist too, but I’ve mellowed over the years.

We recently had a visit from a highly-successful former Portland bicycle co-ordinator who wanted to offer her advice on making cycling more viable in my city. I’d have to say she has this whole chain of kindness thing going too. And she is most impressive.

Despite what some may claim, we are hard-wired to connect with others to find happiness and without compassion it is difficult to achieve.

I’m going to stop rambling now. Tammy, you rock. :)

31 Beth June 16, 2011

thank you for telling this story tammy. i am a barista at a cafe that can be high-traffic and high-stress, and i know what a big difference customers’ attitudes and actions can make in my day. on a bad day, a grumpy comment can be crushing or a simple smile can restore my mood. being reminded that there are people like you who are kind and understanding in situations like this makes me so happy!

32 prufock June 17, 2011

“you never know what kind of emotional baggage people are carrying around with them”

In psychology we have a term for this: Fundamental Attribution Error. That is, we tend to overestimate the personality factor in behaviour (“that guy cut me off, what a jerk!”) and underestimate the situational factor (ie, the guy could be late for a meeting, rushing his wife to the hospital, etc). It IS an error, because behaviour is very susceptible to situations.

I think that knowing this term, and what it means, can help identify it when you’re falling for it, and hopefully overcome it.

33 Brenda June 18, 2011

Hey Tammy,

Love your work and love what you stand for. Lately I’m into bringing my friends flowers. Having flowers around always seems to cheer everyone up no matter what? Even one flower can make a huge difference.

P.S. How are things going without having a phone?

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