For the past week or so, my wife has been practicing random acts of kindness. Nothing earth-shattering, really. Just paying for a stranger’s candy bar or gum at the grocery store or Target. It was her way of making a small difference, encouraging kindness, and spreading some non-denominational cheer during the season. And while the recipient of her good deeds had been slightly puzzled at first, they quickly got the idea and thanked her once she explained. They felt good, my wife felt good, and the world was a slightly kinder place for the price of a Snickers.
So I decided I’d try it. After all, I share my wife’s philosophy about how the simple act of being nice to each other could turn this world around faster than any legislation, religion or infomercial.
On the way into work on Friday, I stopped into a Dunkin Donuts to pick up an Egg Nog Latte (don’t judge me, it’s hot liquid crack), determined to buy coffee for whoever followed me in line. It was a simple and perfect plan, until I got into the store. There was no line. It was so slow in the donut shop, the two women working the register both asked me for my order. “Medium Egg Nog Latte, thanks.” One rang me up while the other started my drink, and I paid, disappointed that my random act of kindness had been stymied by a slow economy. But just as I got my change, the woman at the counter looked over my shoulder and asked, “Hi, can I take your order?”
“Large hazelnut coffee, please.”
I hadn’t heard anyone come into the store, but I thought, “Perfect!” I still had cash in hand, plenty to pay for a coffee, and so as I turned to face the unseen person, I said aloud. “You know, I’d like to…”
And that’s when I saw her.
Early 20s. Blonde. Petite. Cute. Prettily put together in a little down vest and black leggings. She looked like she should be in a Kohl’s catalogue.
I stopped speaking immediately, awkwardly stuffed my change back into my pocket, and shuffled down to the other end of the counter to await my latte. I could not buy this woman coffee for one simple reason. I am a man, and I knew there was no way it would be viewed as a random act of kindness.
Maybe when a 42-year-old married man holds a door for a young woman, it can be viewed as manners or thoughtfulness. But if that same man tries to purchase a beverage of any kind for that same woman, it’s viewed, at least, as a flirtation and at worst, an obvious pick-up attempt.
I’ve told this story to male friends, female friends, co-workers, other writers at The Good Men Project and my wife, and no one has offered up any kind of argument to the contrary. Not a one of them has told me, “You’re being silly. You would’ve made her day!” There wasn’t a single person who has disagreed with the following:
If I had finished my sentence, “I’d like to buy her coffee too,” the first reaction of the blonde, as well as the women behind the counter, would have been that I was using the java to work my mojo. And sure, if I’d smiled harmlessly and explained that I was just trying to emulate my wife and do a random act of kindness for the holidays, it’s likely my explanation would have been accepted.
But what if it hadn’t? What if this young woman had years of experience with random men trying to buy her beverages, and in of all those cases, there was nothing random about it.
What if the ladies behind the counter had seen the old, “Let me buy your coffee and get your number,” gambit a dozen times during their time slinging joe and fried dough?
It’s not like I had video proof that buying coffee for a random stranger had been my intent all along. I hadn’t posted a video of my big plan on Youtube or anything.
I waited another minute for my latte, took it with thanks, and put a couple of bucks in the tip jar on the way out. At least I’d done something nice, even if it wasn’t my original plan. But the rest of the ride into work, all I could think about is this:
What does it say about men that when we do something nice for someone, specifically a woman, the assumption isn’t that we’re being kind for kindness’ sake? The assumption is that we want something in return. Attention. Affection. Respect. Fill in the blank with something less palatable.
How much of that assumption is a reputation we’ve earned as a gender over the past several millennia, and how much of it is just a reflection of our world where people believe that skepticism equals safety?
What kind of “kind” are we, as men, allowed to be without also being suspicious?
Had the person behind me in line been a 70-year-old grandmother or a 300-pound male construction worker or a lantern-jawed personal trainer, I believe I would’ve bought their coffee. I don’t think I would’ve hesitated at all, and had they given me a sideways look, I would’ve felt comfortable explaining my motives and then moving on. But the pretty blonde missed out on receiving a random act of kindness because she was a pretty blonde.
Or maybe she missed out because I’m a man.
UPDATE — Dec. 26th (3 days later): Went into a DD today and actually pulled the “Random Act of Kindness” off via a gift card. (Gave it to the woman behind the counter to pay for mine and told her to use the rest of the card to pay for the next few people. The first person was a guy in his 30s who looked confused, went out of his way to not make eye contact, and left with his coffee and bagel. The next was… an attractive young woman who looked like she was coming from/heading to the gym. She smiled, came over and thanked me… and that was it. When I was leaving the parking lot, I noticed she held the door for an older woman who was walking in. She was already paying it forward.)
Follow Shawn Peters on Twitter – @ShawnTweeters.