I thought up this project a few months ago, right around the Christmas holiday, when I considered how much we, as a culture, focused on things instead of people. For my birthday I’ve asked others to do random acts of kindness on my behalf instead of buying me gifts. Because I truly believe that small acts can add up to change in the world. I want to show my children that kindness is something worthy to cultivate in yourself and others. I’ve made lists and read countless websites to gather ideas, because generating kindness is challenging and requires a certain amount of creativity.
The first act of kindness I performed was not planned, not exactly. The second one either. That is when I started to see that performing kindness is about being aware of the world around you and ready to respond to others who may be in need. Kindness is about seeing in a new way, being present and accountable for yourself and in the ways you can help others.
Kindness #1: Left a generous tip and a note of encouragement
My daughter and I went out for lunch last week. It was almost 1 o’clock and the local Thai place I wanted to try was packed with customers, most were local business people on their lunch hour. The servers bustled around the tables at a frenetic pace, called out to each other in another tongue I couldn’t understand. Our waitress came over and asked what we’d like to drink. I could see her eyes darting behind me, taking account of what else there was to do, how her other customer’s needs were stacking up with each moment. I asked her, “What do you have for my daughter to drink? Do you have juice?” She looked panic stricken and admitted in a soft, low voice, “I don’t know. This is my first day working here. I don’t know anything!” She darted off and arrived back a moment later and recited the list: cranberry, pineapple, orange and apple. I smiled at her and thanked her for checking. We placed the order and waited. And waited.
The table next to us was a four top of men who worked together. Our server brought them their food. Her hands were visibly red from the heat of carrying the plates from the kitchen. One of the men exclaimed, “Oh no, this is isn’t right. I ordered beef. Is this shrimp?” The other server came over, her face downcast in a frown. My server was tense, I could see her shoulders pinched up.
“I’ll be right back,” she promised and disappeared with the plate of food. The more experience woman followed her. Did she yell at her and reprimand her behind the kitchen doors? I couldn’t be sure, but there was something so dejected about this woman when she emerged again, this time with the correct food. She looked smaller somehow, as if this lunch hour shift was diminishing her body and spirit.
I watched her in the mirrors that lined the wall, the way she moved around the tables, caught as they would say in the restaurant business “in the weeds,” clearing tables, taking drink orders, grabbing payment from zealous customers who waved the black check book at her to catch her attention. It was like she was always one step behind where she needed to be, like she was swimming in a deep, dark pool and barely treading water. Her brow was lined with sweat. She was a middle-aged woman with wrinkles and glasses that kept falling down the bridge of her nose. Her clothes didn’t fit quite right. She moved fast, threading around the round tables, but it never seemed fast enough. I wondered why she took this job and where she lived. Did she have a family?
As my daughter and I were eating, the table of men beside us were in the process of paying their check and getting ready to leave. I overheard them discussing the bill, they had split the total four ways. “What kind of tip are you going to leave?” one of them asked the rest of the group.
“Not a thing,” the man across the table from him replied. “She never refilled my water and she got our order wrong,” he explained. They all nodded and I watched them get up and leave. The all left that woman with no tip at all. A woman that was probably earning less than $3 per hour on her first day of work.
When my own check came I left a 50% tip with a handwritten note that said, “First days at a new job are hard. You are doing great. Best of luck to you.” I hope it made a difference to her and helped to ease the sting of that day. Those men who left no tip. I’ve been there, in that anxious place with that terrible unsettled feeling in your stomach as everything is going wrong. We’ve all had those days. Remember that the next time you are out. Maybe this is someone’s first day waiting tables, ringing up people at a cash register, teaching, driving a bus, whatever it is. Be patient and be kind. Even if they aren’t doing a great job. Even if you have to wait a little longer.Try to be kind.