Being a good Samaritan can be very embarrassing
It’s important to stand up for the oppressed. Many think of me as a girlish Che Guevara. An example? On the weekend I was waiting for my order in a coffee shop when the barista started berating the teenaged girl serving for mixing up an order.
The customers, he told her, would not come back. I felt the hot flush of injustice rise to my cheeks. “You know what else will make us not come back?” I retorted, the defiant strains of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” pounding through my righteous mind. “You, being so rude.” He was properly shamed as I swiped my coffee and stalked triumphantly from the store.
Only thing is, ten minutes later I walked past the same coffee shop and the girl was leaning over the counter chatting idly with her yappy friends and being all feckless and self-absorbed and Gen Y as the orders piled up for the harried barista. I realised I’d backed the wrong horse. The point is, most strangers - strangely - don’t want our help.
It’s a problem that regularly confronts commuters. Last week the UK tabloids leapt on a study that suggested a large proportion of pregnant women find themselves strap-hanging for whole bus or train journeys because no one offers them a seat.
Which obviously speaks volumes about the downfall of manners and society and common, old-fashioned decency and floods websites with reader comments that begin with the words “It just goes to show….”
Except it doesn’t really go to show anything. Further probing reveals most commuters aren’t being deliberately rude (or feckless or self-absorbed or Gen Y). Mostly they’re just scared that the ladies might be fat.
Same thing with old people. I’m constantly scrutinising the elderly on public transport and leaping responsibly from my seat when I think one’s pushed past middle age. But if you make the mistake of standing up for a 60-something-year-old whose face is rigid with Botox and dresses in natty Country Road casual wear you’ll quickly learn they have right hooks to shame a 30-year-old.
Mothers know better than anyone about the interference of do-gooding strangers. In a single trip to the shops a mother with a pram can expect to be told her baby is too hot, cold, hungry, tired, cross, underdressed, overdressed or otherwise disagreeable by complete unknowns. I know this better than anyone because I am myself a mother, and I tell other mums off all the time.
The other day I walked past a teenager carrying a naked newborn along the street in the late evening, both looking tired and hungry. I asked her if she was okay or if I could help in any way. Her eyes widened and she scuttled away.
Maybe it had nappy rash and its clothing chafed. Maybe she was taking it for a brisk, nippy stroll. Or maybe she could have kidnapped it or just given birth to it in secret in a toilet bowl or something. Whatever the case, my getting involved didn’t help any.
We’re often told we should keep an eye on our elderly neighbours and look out for signs that they might have died, forgotten, in their homes.
A friend of mine once noticed a terrible smell emanating from the apartment of the older lady across the hall. She dutifully rang the buzzer. But things fell apart a little when the woman answered. “Hi. Look, this is a little tense but I thought you might be dead,” my friend stammered. “It was the smell, you see. But I guess you’re just having an off-week with the cleaning. I’ll go away now.”
Or at least that’s what would have probably happened. As it turned out the lady was actually dead – but if she wasn’t it could have been very embarrassing for everyone involved.
The fact is strangers should be approached with great caution. They’re right when they say strangers are just friends you haven’t met. All except for the bit where it’s suggested they’re friends.
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