December 7, 2020

It’s Time to Talk About the Kindness of Strangers


The Kindness of Strangers

A Travel Life Lesson

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? Wasn't the point from Vivien Leigh not to live your life this way. 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 in Tokyo

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.

I wrote this after the day 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.

A side street in Shinjuku, Tokyo
A side street in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Related: The Top Ten Ethical Travel Destinations

Have you ever felt lonely and lost?

With my mind tainted by the tiredness of different time zones, I blinked for a longer than normal before walking away. Darkness chased 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.

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 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, I said it.

Inside the Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens, Tokyo, Japan
Inside those 400 Year Old Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens Just in Time

Recommended reading: What is Sustainable Tourism Anyway? And Is It Any Fun?

How about you? Do you believe in the kindness of strangers?

I first wrote this piece on The Kindness of Strangers years ago while in Japan. The years that followed have only strengthened my belief in the words.


  • Mikeachim says:

    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.

  • Patricia King says:

    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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