The Kindness of Strangers

I have returned safely to India! My monstrous journey back (28 hours from door to door!) inspired the following post…

Whilst on my flight from London to Mumbai, the elderly woman sat behind me, wearing a baby pink saree, started shouting at me in Hindi and shaking my chair violently. She had swapped seats with one of her family members as I was happily snoozing, she really didn’t like that my seat was reclined and exploded with anger towards me. It was quite surreal. I didn’t cry, but I know that if I could have done if I were in a different mood (yes, I’m a sensitive soul).

Years ago, someone told me that you should always smile at strangers because that smile may be the only smile that person sees all day. That smile might lift their mood and bring them some joy. That small gesture of kindness which only takes a moment has the power to turn someone’s day around. None of us know what is happening in the lives of the strangers who walk around us, who we stand next to in queues, answer our call to customer services or sit behind us on aeroplanes…

I always smile at strangers if we happen to lock eyes, it’s become a habit of mine. Whilst in England that hasn’t given me any problems. It’s common etiquette (doesn’t always happen mind you, but it is normal).  In India I’ve had to really rein that habit in because it’s been mistaken for something different. When I first moved to India, I smiled at a guy who was staring at me (the mythical foreigner in India), and he followed me and it became scary. He mistook the innocent smile for flirtation. I now avoid eye contact with men, and only smile at women and children. It makes me feel mean but unfortunately that experience has taught me that smiling at strangers is not common. My experiences have taught me that etiquette in India is very different from what I was brought up with, for example people laugh at me for saying ‘thank you’ when someone gives me something!

Anyway, I digress…

I could have turned around and shouted back at this woman in the baby pink saree for disturbing me in such a violent way when I was perfectly within my rights to have my seat reclined as there wasn’t any food being served but who knows how she was feeling on that flight back to India. She may have had the worst day of her life. I didn’t say anything and begrudgingly tried to put my seat up straight. The violent shaking must have done something to the mechanism inside the chair because it would not go up! I shook it upright and all was calm and uncomfortable once again.

Kindness towards strangers costs nothing. Next time you want to explode at a stranger (or have been exploded upon), be mindful and try to be kind.

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26 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers

  1. “When I first moved to India, I smiled at a guy who was staring at me (the mythical foreigner in India), and he followed me and it became scary” – same here, Lauren.

    I had to change my “smiling habits” since I moved to India too. But for me it was a bit different. The thing is, in Ukraine, where I’m originally from, and other Slavic countries, people don’t smile to strangers. Foreigners are always puzzled by the number of gloomy faces in our public transport, on the streets, in the shops and so on. It’s not because people unfriendly, it’s just not a part of the culture. But we’re slowly moving towards looking more friendly 🙂

    So, when I came to India, I was amazed by all the sincere smiles people greeted me with. I’ve learned to smile too. Only it took me time to realize it’s safer to smile only to kids and women.

    Sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience in the plain. I think your attitude is very admirable.

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    • Hey,

      That is so interesting to know!! I guess there is a scale for it!! Definitely always a good feeling to smile at kids and women because they usually appreciate it a lot!!

      I hope you are well! xx

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  2. Honestly, I am the one who usualy gets overly upset with people recling the seats, especially in buses. Sometimes, it becomes quite uncomfortable having the person literally laying on your knees, especially for old people. And it can become a real nightmare, if your sit is at the end of the bus and you can’t do the same. Maybe, that lady experienced one of those nightmares. But unfortunately, she decided that the rudeness was the best approach to convey her distress signals to you. I noticed the poorer person is the more agressive she/he is to people who surround her. You know I’m also from Ukraine, like the commenter above. exsprepod won’t allow me to lie. If you are using a public transport you, you may end up being pushed by someone, like you a peace of bag, not a human being.

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    • Haha, you are definitely not the only one. This lady proves it. I didn’t know that buses could do it too. They should come to India where some buses have actual beds. The seats on this airline didn’t go back too far and it wasn’t too intrusive because the guy infront of me was reclined but on some planes I have been on… it’s a huge problems.

      Such a shame to hear that public transport is like that, does get a bit similar on the London underground during rush hour xx

      (P.S. I don’t think she was poor, she was dripping with gold)

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  3. you did the right thing…by the way there have been many other incidents over reclining seats even in domestic US flights. It seems the airlines are trying to squeeze in as many people as possible without caring about their comfort

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    • Aww, thank you so much, Mani!
      I guess it comes from being in retail pharmacy and having so many people be rude to you. You begin to see that peoples lives are full of unknown sadness and sometimes they take it out on the people around them (e.g. someone being rude but their are picking up their cancer medicines for the first time so they are scared).

      I hope you guys are well! xx

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  4. I like your blog 🙂 In India as children we are taught not to talk or speak with a total stranger because for our own safety as we dont know what type of person stranger can be ..Its for our own safety we usually dont smile at strangers and its weird …I understand ..when I came to USA, strangers used to smile and greet you…initially I felt very wierd and dint know how to reply back or dint know how should I be greeting them back…but later I started to like it and whenever I go for walk now adays I make sure I greet every one on the way and smile…I keep a track of records of greetings I made today 🙂 🙂 and feel happy about it…

    Its common here to do so..but In India I totally agree ,people will feel weird to smile at strangers 🙂

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    • Hey,

      Thank you so much for your comment! You can see perfectly the other side of the coin, that’s great! Whats weird to some people is normal to others. I am happy that you are enjoying greeting people 😀

      I hope you are well! 😀

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  5. @Lauren

    The problem with sorry and thank you is that it was part of the British culture. Most of what we imbibed from British is used in a formal set up like work place or with complete strangers. However, in western countries it is part of their natural behavior under all circumstances. Thus, we believe that these things bring a degree of formality between family members or friends. Since in India, everyone from family to friend is part of one big family, these formalities are usually not widely practice. Therefore, we often do not use these words where they are absolutely necessary. Not often, there are many people in India who are prompt with their sorry and thank you.

    A famous Urdu poet said the this about formalities;-

    “There is nothing but inconvenience in formal behavior. Those who do not indulge in formalities live a relaxed life.”

    The same is the case of Indian English which is often used for official purposes and appear archaic when used in normal conversation. Now, ofcourse the younger generation speaks Hinglish (Hindi with american english) which is sounds atrocious. British English, archaic or not, is atleast grammatically correct. We love the queen and her English.

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    • Hey Friend!

      I hope you are well!! Lovely to hear from you as always 😀

      It’s funny how please/thankyou/sorry have become formal when in British families, those words are how we show love for eachother. If I got a gift from my parents and I didn’t say thank you, they would be deeply deeply upset. The same with sorry, if I didn’t say sorry if I upset someone, that person would have a real hard time forgiving me! I know I have had a hard time forgiving certain people in India without hearing ‘sorry’. I know that is the case for many other girls married into Indian families.

      Lots of love and THANK YOU (;)) for your comment xx

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  6. Well, you certainly handled that with grace. I would have probably cried (I’m quite the senstive soul too). Many people would have easily reacted with aggression right back. It says a lot about your character that your tried to empathize rather than victimize/villianize. 🙂

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  7. Men have the same problem, if they smile at women, they get frowned upon.

    I suppose it may depend where you live, but if I smile at young ladies its not considered acceptable and I would get a rep as flirt.

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  8. You are a better person than I! Respectful of the aged, respectful of your new home country- I can’t help but think that is the right way to be! You will be rewarded for that attitude! My limited experience teaches me that some people in India or from India tend to be comfortable being harsh- no different from the US of course, or the UK! I was thankful to find that harshness was rare toward me in India, probably because I was a tourist and because there ARE a big proportion of very gentle people in India, more than in US. But I saw harshness happen to my friend, who is native and grew up in Tamil Nadu, all the time. She just gave back what she got. When harshness occurs I think it is due to oppression (of women, or the wounds of historic colonial oppression) and it is inevitable that people’s feelings must come out some way, usually over something small, when they are oppressed. And centuries of oppression… well as a person descending from one of those countries which has done irreparable harm as a colonial power I guess humility and kindness are most appropriate for that reason as well in the case that someone is mean and hurtful. I believe in compassion but not in being trampled on due to someone else’s pain. It is best to be compassionate but strong back, maybe not harsh in equal measure but a look of bewilderment at someone being nasty when I wasn’t doing anything wrong, some assertion that I am not doing anything wrong and need to be as I am. If it were to escalate I would of course try to defuse, but sometimes simply gently pushing back defuses the situation. We have this mythical belief that kindness can ease hatefulness and re awaken compassion in a person who is being mean… I just don’t believe that is always true. I am afraid that kindness to a mean person just makes them think their hatefulness wins the day. That doesn’t excuse me from my obligation to be kind though. Thank you for the reminder. When I go back I will try it both ways. You are such a dear person.

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    • Hey Handbasket,

      Thank you sooo much for your lovely and kind words (and sorry for my late reply!). I agree that in some instances it is best to stand up for yourself, but we have to choose our battles wisely. Compassion and strength are such a great combination! I hope and pray that the women and others who are oppressed can be liberated!! Kudos to your friend for not letting people walk all over her.

      I hope you are well!

      Lots of love xx

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  9. Reclining seats are a nuisance! The last time I asked some one to move forward a bit – politely -she totally ignored me and plugged in her headphones!

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