Our editor in chief weighs in on the importance of small gestures, especially during the holidays.

By Stephen Orr
December 09, 2019

What do you want for the holidays? For most of us, I’ll bet the No. 1 answer is to spend quality time with our family and friends away from the workaday commitments. I’ll add something I think most would hope for as well—to be thought of.

The year-end holidays that we celebrate in various forms around the world are a natural time to stop and value people who are important to us. Too often, we make shopping for gifts a chore as we rush from store to store (or stay up late trying to negotiate a last-minute online delivery), ticking names off a list that has been weighing on us since Thanksgiving. But let’s not lose the point of gift-giving. Each present is an affirmation between you and another person. It doesn’t have to be expensive or mindblowing. People mostly want to be noticed, considered, and valued. To know, “I am thinking of you. Here’s something you might enjoy.”

Naturally, we do this for close family, friends, and coworkers. But how can we let other people know we appreciate them? I think in many cases the more random the association the better. What about giving a small something to the barista you chat with every morning? Or a small donation to an organization in a teacher’s honor? Or a small holiday gift plant to your dry cleaner? All these acts have profound effects.

I recently read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a $20 million gift awarded to UCLA to open the Bedari Kindness Institute to study the effects of humans being kind (defined here academically as “an act that enhances the welfare of others as an end in itself”). In this school of thought, doing something for another person is the opposite of so many of the transactional—more business or politically oriented—interactions we have. The university’s research has revealed some surprisingly reassuring results. “As troubling as violence and cruelty are in our society, the actual level of positive cooperation is astounding at an evolutionary level,” Daniel Fessler, Ph.D. and anthropology professor at UCLA, said in the article. “Our species is a hyper-cooperative one. No other species is engaged in such a large level of cooperation among individuals who are not kin.”

Even small gestures toward strangers can make a difference in the mood of both the recipient and the giver. As I’ve aged, I’ve found myself becoming more like my late father. One of his habits, which used to annoy and embarrass his teenage children to no end, was how he always cheerfully talked to strangers: the guard at the museum, a waiter, a flight attendant, fellow diners, or anyone in any sort of line. I find myself now doing it to such a degree that when my husband sees me eyeing a potential victim in public, he tugs my arm and says, “Hold up, Pop Pop.” He’s right. Obviously not everyone wants to engage in conversation, but I find more often than not people are happy to share a smile or a laugh over a common experience. I’ve learned a lot and met many nice people following in my father’s footsteps, so no amount of arm-tugging will stop me from continuing his tradition.

Comments (1)

December 17, 2019
Cute! This is a wonderful article.