12. Emotional socialism

Or, Saying thank you is an act of rebellion

This is about being nice to people and a lot of it is obvious and it’s a bit worthy but I tried. (Also the next two physical letters were sent, bringing the total to 4.)

There’s a place called Ricebrother in Spitalfields Market, an old covered market in London now fully weaponised to separate young urban professionals from their money. It, by which I mean Spitalfields, is terrible and amazing in equal measure, and its presence near where I work is one of those things that makes work a lot more bearable.

Ricebrother basically makes one thing and makes it very well. It’s sticky rice wrapped around a mixture of meat, pickles, deep-fried Chinese donut (youtiao), and assorted bits and bobs. They were a staple of my diet in Vancouver, and something I never thought I’d have in London.

Last week I placed my order and waited for my number to be called. Spitalfields is fairly chaotic during lunch, so I wasn’t too concerned as person after person was served ahead of me . After awhile the young man at the counter started catching my eye with each number he read out, until he just asked me what my number was. They’d lost the order. Apologies were made, the roll was promptly assembled, and I was soon on my way.

I was probably delayed about 3 minutes. Maybe 5? The whole time the young man kept apologising, and I kept smiling and saying it was fine. When I got my roll I said thank you.

And that was that. That’s the whole story.

They call it The Waiter Rule which is absolutely fine, but reveals a lot about how we think about the whole thing. I prefer a version I read pre-internet, which means it doesn’t exist anymore. It went something like this:

If you want to know what someone is really like, don’t look at how they act around their friends or family or coworkers; see how they act around people when there’s no expectation they’ll treat those people well.

So waiters yes, and bus drivers and security guards and bank tellers. The service industry is an obvious testing ground. But also strangers in a line, strangers at a concert, strangers standing outside a pub. Strangers anywhere. Or, as they’re also known, people.

Because I think the service thing is a giant red herring, like we’re saying the point is we could treat service people like trash but look at us, being all benevolent. And that’s not the point at all (or at least god help us that shouldn’t be the point).

The point is, when you don’t have to be nice to people, when you won’t ever see someone again or need them in any way, how do you treat them?

When you’re in a restaurant the worst thing that can happen to you, within reason, is you won’t get your food. Not great, but that’s the absolute worst. The worst thing that can happen to the person bringing you the food is they could be out of a job. The scale of consequences is totally imbalanced. So the threshold for complaining, insisting, raising an issue should be much higher for us.

Again, this is all really obvious. But on an average night in London I’ll see this play out the other way about half a dozen times.

And I think, if you’re good in your life, and things are stable and you have some surplus, the balance is always in your favour. This is what makes the behaviour of people in power, and people with vast amounts of wealth, so galling to me. The scales are tipped all the way to their side and they’re still petulant demanders, immature refusers. They are closed off to humanity in a way that should be unacceptable for anyone who holds that much sway.

A few years ago the scales of my life tipped a bit away from me. I needed a lot more from other people than I could give to them. S and C, a couple of friends who are also a couple, must have sensed this, and made a noticeable effort to reach out to me more. I bumped into them once around Broadway Market and they spent the rest of the evening listening to me ramble on about god knows what. For a few nights I stayed in their home.

My life is very full right now. For the people who need it, I try and tilt the scales back their way. That might mean more of my effort, or time, or patience. It might mean doing less at them. I practice something I call (please forgive me, I’m sorry) low impact friendship. It’s based on the idea of low impact camping (oh god why), where you aim to leave a site exactly as you found it.

In my (aaarrrgggghhh) version I try to make every interaction with me require the least amount of effort. You don’t have to entertain me or plan something for me to do. You don’t have to travel to some preferred location, or engage in some activity of the moment. If travelling is hard for you, I’ll come to you. And while plans are fine, no plans rule the day. So quick texts when I’m in the area, or have a moment, or it just occurs to me to reach out. And the same for you.

Because I’ve been careful with my brain and heart lately, I have a lot in the storehouse. So I’ve been giving stuff away. My brain to people to bounce ideas off of or just unload. My heart to say I love you. I have the reserves and they’re not accruing interest, so the only sensible thing to do is give them away.

Whatever you have a surplus of, give it away.