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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Learning from Beggars: How to Be Human So People Will See You

Sally asks for money at least once a week. It started small with cadges like, "Singer, you got a dollar for the bus?" I'd give it to her if I had it. Sometimes I'd dip into the cash we keep on hand for kids who need a little. She's a good kid. She's friendly, funny, she works hard and her homelife is a massive mess.

She's not alone, by the way. Teachers tend to be soft targets for kids who need a little bit of fold in their pocket, but most kids aren't as nuanced as Sally. Most try asking for money with "Give me a dollar. I know you got one." I give them a dollar occasionally if I have one and I feel like it.

Sally's better at it than most. She started including a back story and the amounts started to grow. Her brother took her cash and she couldn't afford food. Her mom stole twenty dollars from her and she needed to buy some personal items. She started to spread it around, too, asking other teachers and the IAs. It became a topic of discussion among us -- whether she was lying, whether we should continue to give her money.

She sensed the change in our attitudes as we transformed from cavalier benefactors to tightfisted misers. She began to change her tactics.

She started to leave notes on my chair:

"Dear Mr. Singer, I know I'm always asking you for money and I feel real bad doing it again but I need five dollars so I can buy some food. My mom said she's not gonna let me eat hers no more."

That one earned five dollars.

But just as Mr. Peachum, who's job it was to arouse human pity, had to continually find new ways to entice the hardhearted citizens of London to part with their pence and shillings, so Sally had to continually find new ways to arouse our pity.

The notes started to come in envelopes. That worked for a little while, but then we forced her to up her game again.

She began new notes by telling us how important we are, how much she appreciated everything we were doing for her.

I'm softhearted. I keep giving her money, but some of my co-workers have decided to try and cut her off. I can't say they're wrong. They probably aren't. My coworkers are suggesting that we refer Sally for counseling.

I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with what she's doing. As a matter of fact, I think we could learn from her.

Daniel Ariely, a personal hero of mine, recently did a study on begging, specifically looking at the question of why some beggars were more successful than others. What he found was that the more closely a person in need adheres to the basic elements of polite social interactions, the more likely they are to be paid. A person who sits on the sidewalk, eyes down, is easily ignored. A person who is standing, puts out their hand to shake yours, makes eye contact, and converses directly with you is highly likely to end up with change in his pocket.

His conclusions are important:

I think there are two main lessons here. The first is to realize how much of our lives are structured by social norms. We do what we think is right, and if someone gives us a hand, there’s a good chance we will shake it, make eye contact, and act very differently than we would otherwise.

The second lesson is to confront the tendency to avert our eyes when we know that someone is in need. We realize that if we face the problem, we’ll feel compelled to do something about it, and so we avoid looking and thereby avoid the temptation to give in and help. We know that if we stop for a beggar on the street, we will have a very hard time refusing his plea for help, so we try hard to ignore the hardship in front of us: we want to see, hear, and speak no evil. And if we can pretend that it isn’t there, we can trick ourselves into believing –at least for that moment– that it doesn’t exist. The good news is that, while it is difficult to stop ignoring the sad things, if we actively chose to pay attention there is a good chance that we will take an action and help a person in need.

Sally picked this up intuitively. Her earnings (and our discomfort with her earnings) are evidence of the fact that she has effectively exploited our social norms and as a result we've each parted with considerable sums of cash.

This cat-and-mouse between people in need and people who can help is age-old. Each of us engages in it on a regular basis whether it be with the guy holding a hand-written sign at the stoplight, a student, or with the charity mailers that separate the bills in our mailboxes. Each is working hard to push through our willful blindness in order to engage us on a human level because they know the simple truth about most humans:

If we are forced to confront the fact that other people are suffering, we feel obligated to try and help.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this maxim. just ask Kitty Genovese, but on the whole most people, when forced to identify with somebody in need of help, will do so. It works on the individual level quite well. If it didn't, people wouldn't continue ask for help. We are not John Galt, no matter how much some people wish we could be.

Where it doesn't work as well is in the larger abstract sense. When people aren't confronted with the reality of need, when it is presented as an abstract concept like Welfare or Unemployment Benefits or WIC or Housing Assistance or Failing Schools or Starvation or Homelessness, we are able to substitute the distance and caution that comes along with every use of the third person plural, "They" instead of the connection and concern that comes naturally to most of us when we are forced to use the second person, "You," or the first person, "We."

Sally gets money from us because she's Sally. Poor kids get told that they have no work habits because they are "They."

So, in order to create change in our society, we must create a personal connection between the 1% and the 99%. As long as we are "they," we can be ignored. As long as "they" are "they," they will be hated. Just as in Daniel Ariely's study, if we cannot make eye contact, if we cannot force a handshake, we cannot get the change we need.

The Occupy Movement has been enormously successful in forcing awareness, but already the level of interest has waned outside of those of us who are involved. By stepping outside the social norms, we made the first step -- we got them to look at us, but we we didn't force any form of personal connection and we are already being re-ignored. To continue along this line, we would need to continually up our game just as Mr. Peachum said and just as Sally did.

But just like in any family fight, after the shouted catharsis must come the quiet conversation, not louder shouting. Without quiet considered conversation, no changes will be made and the fight will recur and escalate.

Most of us are not beggars -- and neither is the Occupy Movement. Therefore, we need to be able to engage in direct conversation. We need to create circumstances where one on one dialogue can occur. It may seem counter-intuitive when we are dealing with a problem as massive and as complicated as income and wealth inequality and a lack of social mobility, but without human connection, we each will continue to be "they" to the other and that will mean that, just like a panhandler, we will have to get continually louder and more aggressive in order to be heard because they will continue to get better at ignoring us.

It's time to talk without shouting. Ed Speenburgh, an occupier in Gainesville, Florida is hard to ignore even though he speaks softly. Another raucous demonstration in the streets is getting easy to ignore because it's simply more white noise.

As a society, we are good at ignoring massive upheavals, but we can't seem to ignore the plight of a single individual and will move heaven and earth to help. Just ask Mamie Carthan Till or Baby Jessica.

Marches and protests are important, but massive changes in society have always come about with a massive change in individual beliefs caused by humanization. Now might be the time to start talking.


  1. The Google Veteran's link is great too. The blog, as always, was excellent.

  2. Move to Amend has started one conversation, called a constitutional amendment, to put an end to corporate personhood. I hope all of you will join them on Jan. 20th at your closest Federal Courthouse to talk and bring awareness.