Monday, September 6, 2010

On the Kindness of Strangers (Or, When it's okay not to be kind)

Imagine this scenario:

You're in a waiting room with people coming and going. A stranger several seats away asks you to watch her laptop while she runs to the restroom. You nod, and the woman is gone. One moment later, another stranger casually approaches the laptop, unplugs it, and wraps the whole thing under her arm as she walks away.

What do you do? Do you yell to her to stop? Maybe it's the first stranger's friend picking up the computer for her. I mean, who would be so brazen as to steal a computer in front of another person?

When the first stranger returns from the restroom and finds her computer gone, she turns to you with unabashed anger. "Where's my computer?!" Suddenly, the problem is yours because you took responsibility for a stranger's possession.

This kind of thing happens more frequently than you'd imagine. Because of this, I decided years ago not to accept responsibility when a stranger innocently asks me to "watch their stuff". So yesterday, when the first part of the above scenario happened, I smiled kindly at the woman and apologized, explaining that I wouldn't take responsibility for her computer. Oh, the dirty look that followed. And all I'm thinking is how does she know that I'm not the exact person who would steal it?

The woman left the computer anyway, which means if she was prepared to do so, she shouldn't have asked me in the first place. If she's that trusting, she should have simply taken the risk, hoping that nobody would have touched the laptop since I was present.

For the record, I once witnessed a mother ask another woman to watch her toddler sleeping in the stroller so she could run to the bathroom. People...please!

I hate not to be the Good Samaritan, but this is setting yourself up for trouble. If I sound cynical, answer me this. Why does airport security specifically advise travelers not to accept goods from others in the airport and to report abandoned luggage? Life can be beautiful, but it's also pretty dirty sometimes. Agreeing to take responsibility for a stranger's property is never wise. And asking strangers to take on that burden is unfair.

If your item is that valuable, pack it up and take it with you. And if you're really willing to leave it for a few moments, go for it (but not with young children) and hope that honesty and morality will prevail. Like Anne Frank wrote in her diary, "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."


  1. I hate being asked this! I think most people are good/honest, but I'm not taking any chances. I'll pack my crap up and take it with me.

  2. I can't count the times I've been asked to watch someone's stuff -- and I admit asking, on a rare occasion or two, that someone watch mine. Ugh. It's always uncomfortable, no matter which side of the trust fence I find myself on. Maybe next time, I'll have the ka-hoonas to say no.

    My copy of Enzo's Mamma has arrived!! So excited to read it. (I've read the first couple pages and love it, so far.) I have a stack on my nightside table, so I'll let you know when I officially start it. And I was wondering: if I send it to you with return postage, would you sign it for me? Let me know :D

    Happy Labor Day!

  3. Love your blog and your stories. I will be following it on my blog. Join me as I write from the Baby Boomer perspective.
    Enzo's Mamma looks great!
    I too live in South Florida (elementary ed: Reading Specialist) and I love it that you are an ESOL professor. I am working with a lot of ESOL kids right now and I love them.

  4. Your stance is the only safe one to take.
    You could place yourself at real risk in such a situation. I agree - trust a stranger to watch your child, are you mad?

  5. I'll happily watch your stuff. And I would stop the person walking away with the laptop. But if it's a waiting room or something, I'll always say, "But if I get called in, I'm leaving it!"

  6. Hi Wendy, I think I still believe what Anne Frank says, maybe I'm a little naive too. I also believe in Guardian Angels.

    My OH and I were in the supermarket car park loading up our groceries when a lady asked us if we could watch her small son in the car, he was ill and had finally fallen asleep and she didn't want to wake him but she needed to run inside the store to pickup his prescription. I have to say my heart went out to her as she seemed pretty desperate. My OH was incredulous at the request but we did watch her son, the dog in the backseat and her car which she locked btw. Sometimes you just know when people genuinely need you help. You just need to pick the right ones to help out.

    Lovely blog you have here, glad I found it! ;)

  7. LOL, I'm the lady that sits and wait for the person to come back...or feel a need to justify why I can't be responsible...Like my plane might land. I've wanted to say, "What if you can't trust me? Do I look that trustworthy?" You never know... Great post, Wendy!

  8. Yeah, I mean, how difficult is it for someone to take a laptop to a rest room? And besides, if you plan on being there a while, well, it might help pass the, umm, time. Good blog.