Travel The World

The Kindness of Strangers: Clunky cliche or the point of it all?

Fragile leaf between two rocks - the kindness of strangers

“The Kindness of Strangers”

I’m far from the first to string those four words together. Legendary journalist Kate Adie looped them in a line to describe her autobiography; Vivien Leigh sighed them in A Streetcar Named Desire. Writing courses rail against them and editors hang their heads and demand something fresh.

I’ve even read articles that go one step further, tearing the words apart and flinging them across the pixels of an angry page, particularly when it comes to travel writing. The Kindness of Strangers? Puh-lease, they cry. Don’t you morons realise that most people couldn’t care less about helping you? Haven’t you noticed that your friends and family assist you far more often? How can you bear to be so naive?

Well, I’m going to round up those four words and I’m not going to string them together. I’m going to find glittering silver thread to weave them into a sparkling, dancing parade.

The Kindness of Strangers.

Like Kate Adie, I have now travelled a lot (unlike her, I’ve skipped most of the war zones, I don’t have an OBE and no-one knows who I am. Which at least means there are more strangers around.)

I’m inclined to believe that something stirs within our souls when strangers show us kindness precisely because most people couldn’t care less. Even when they’re supposed to.

Sign in the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens in Tokyo - Beyond translation problems

Kindness Beyond Language Barriers

Earlier today I stood at the gates to the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens. Surrounded by shiny Tokyo skyscrapers, these low wooden doors looked out of place. As, I’m sure, did I.

Crowds in suits hurried past, anxious not to slip on the fresh wet snow. Incense billowed across the walls, tumbling over the curved Japanese rooftops and mingling with my own visible breath before disappearing into nothing.

The gates were locked.

With my mind tainted by the tiredness of a different time zone, I blinked for a little longer than normal before walking away. Darkness was chasing me and I had to find the entrance within minutes before the opportunity was lost.

Behind me, I heard shouting and I turned to see a Japanese woman in her sixties gesturing with an intensity that few market traders could match. This elaborate choreography directed me to the alternative entrance, the one off the maps, hidden from view, around the hexagonal block and then further along again.

My soul almost soared.

Now depending on what mood you’re in, you may well be thinking: get a grip. Some woman gives you directions and you go all misty-eyed?

But this woman stands for more than that. Yes, she’s the antidote to the US Airways staff who dropped a bag on my head and complained that I was in the way, to the car hire company who refused to speak to me and the **** who stole the lens from my luggage. And she’s obviously a world away from the people who cause real damage in this world: the murderers, the rapists and the supporters of the BNP.

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens Entrance Sign Tokyo - Kindness of Strangers

The Beauty of Unexpected Kindness

Yet she stands for even more than that. This is a woman who offered help, without being asked, to someone who was lost. Someone she had never met before and would never meet again. As far as I can see, there was absolutely nothing in it for her (I wasn’t lost on the subway and blocking access to the platform, her brother didn’t have a carpet shop with great bargains at just the other end of town and, given the demographics on both sides, it’s pretty safe to say she wasn’t after sexual favours.)

She was just showing kindness to a stranger.

That’s what gives us aid organisations and public health, that’s what gives us human rights and peace. That’s what gives us freedom.

So, go ahead and laugh, all ye cynics of the phrase. Personally, I’d like to see it more often.

The kindness of strangers. There, said it.

Inside the Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens, Tokyo, Japan

Inside those 400 Year Old Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens Just in Time

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14 Responses to The Kindness of Strangers: Clunky cliche or the point of it all?

  1. Angela February 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    Gorgeous post, I totally agree, the kindness of the strangers exists and, you’re right, sometimes they care more than those who are supposed to.
    I’m finding it in SE Asia, where I moved six months ago, and this is one of those aspects that are making me not miss Europe at all.
    Beautifully written!

  2. Abi February 11, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Thank you Angela. I’m glad to hear that you’re finding kindness in your new home, although I’m sorry to hear you didn’t find so much of it in Europe!

  3. lara dunston February 13, 2011 at 5:33 am #

    Wondefully written, Abi. Those generous moments that human beings occasionally show each other, more readily in some countries/cultures than others (the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa) is *exactly* the reason I travel. The more I travel, the more I know I travel for those encounters than anything else. Thanks for reminding me!

  4. Abi February 24, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks so much for dropping by, Lara. It’s certainly possible to experience those moments without travelling but either they come along less often or they’re less noticeable because I’m less lost…

  5. Lola February 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    Lovely post! Those unexpected moments are usually what remind us of our basic humanity and connection in this mad, mad world.

  6. Andrea February 28, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Such a lovely post. We’ve been in NZ the last nine weeks where people hear you talking about how to get somewhere on the street or see you looking around aimlessly and come right over to tell you the best way to get there, the bus fare, how many steps you’ll go up and the name of the person working behind the counter (please say hello from them, of course!). I love it – because as a traveller I am always happy to help someone out in my own locale…it really does feel good – if for nothing else than the hope that the good karma will come around your way when you’re lost and hopeless somewhere out in the world.

  7. Connie March 2, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I recently wrote a piece on the “kindness of strangers” that you might find interesting: http://connvoyage.blogspot.com/2011/02/montage-monday-travel-with-strangers.html

  8. Andy Jarosz March 2, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Very well written Abi. I think there’s another consequence of this kindness of strangers. Even those of us who love to travel a lot are not always the stranger in need in these encounters. In fact I dare say in most cases we are cast to play the role of the Japanese woman. It is us who have the chance to be the helpful stranger. For me the beauty of these moments is that they help remind us, perhaps even oblige us, to reciprocate that kindness when we have the chance.

  9. Jeanne @soultravelers3 March 2, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Beautiful and I couldn’t agree more!

    I once wrote a post about called “kindness of strangers” in 2008 because I have been absolutely amazed at the kindness that we have received in the last 5 years as we’ve traveled the world non-stop as a family.

    http://www.soultravelers3.com/2008/07/kindness-of-str.html

    I’ve always believed in “random acts of kindness” even before it was a trend, so truly enjoy both the receiving and the giving.

    Our travel lifestyle has given me more faith in humanity!

  10. Abi March 3, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    I think that there’s an opportunity to be each of these roles for most of us on most days, whether we’re travelling or not. We can appreciate help, give help or ignore/not even notice that someone else could benefit from a helping hand. Travel situations make it more obvious – and a bit less complicated.

  11. Sophie April 22, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I think kindness of strangers is a lovely string of words, and I’ve often encountered it, especially in the Middle East. Even if a phrase is overused, have become a cliché, even – doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

  12. Abi May 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    Sophie – that’s a great phrase & I’ll try to remember it more often.

  13. Mikeachim May 8, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    Lovely sentiment. And one I applaud.

    I hate that I live in a country where kindness to strangers, while just as present as anywhere else in the world, is hampered by…something that stops us reaching out to people on the bus, in the street, in queues. It’s not that English people are generally unfriendly (far from it), but there’s something in our cultural makeup – maybe programmed into us by a tabloid media that loves to wave stories of the apparent danger of strangers – that stops us being as immediately friendly as we should be. A wall, by default. And as someone just as steeped in his home culture as anyone else, I struggle with this as much as anyone else round here.

    (Well, I might just be a misanthropic jerk. Answers on a postcard, folks).

    But there’s a powerful thrill from reaching out to a stranger, just as much as there is to receiving help from one. There’s a…*rightness* to helping someone out, not for personal gain, not to feel smugly like a good samaritan, but just because you’re there and you have the time and there is something you can do to improve someone else’s situation.

    “Kindness” – it’s one of those words, like “nice”, that has been lumbered with a faintly bad rep. If you’re kind or nice, you’re a pushover. You’re easily manipulated. You’re not cut-throat enough to make it in your chosen field. You don’t have what it takes. So it’s nice to see a lot of idea-rich people out there (Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau) taking the time to punch this assumption on the nose.

    And yes, this:

    >>That’s what gives us aid organisations and public health, that’s what gives us human rights and peace. That’s what gives us freedom.”

    And it’s how human beings work, as a species. Without kindness (and niceness), we’d still be up trees, wondering how we’re going to scare those nasty predators off on our own, without any help from our neighbours. And travelling round the world, and being met with that kind of cooperative spirit manifesting as kindness, is being met with a sign of our humblest beginnings. It’s like an echo from the beginning of our history. And I reckon that’s why it thrills us so much – because it’s suggests we’re still on track.

  14. Patricia King June 18, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    One helpful gentleman in Saporro (must be something about the Japanese) stopped to help be because I looked lost, and missed his bus home from work in doing so. Needless to say I felt awful but he just smiled and called a taxi.

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