I was at the grocery store doing my weekly shopping. After surviving the mad dash around the store, I was more than ready to check out and head home. When it was finally my turn at the register, I unloaded my items and attempted to make small talk with the cashier:
“How are you doing today?”Nothing. Radio silence. The sulky teenage boy didn’t even look me in the eye.
It figures, I thought. This is exactly what is wrong with this country- we’ve forgotten how to treat each other with basic dignity and respect. My inner vent session continued as I impatiently tapped my foot and waited for him to finish bagging my items. He doesn’t even have the common courtesy to acknowledge my presence. Talk about customer service!
And then I noticed it. A small sign, sitting on the corner of the register by the credit card machine:Hi! My name is Austin! I’m hearing impaired. If you want to speak to me or need any assistance, please make sure to look me in the eye and get my attention. Otherwise, I probably won’t hear you. Thank you for your cooperation!
There aren’t enough words to accurately describe how much of a jackass I felt like in that moment.
Austin hadn’t been ignoring me, he simply hadn’t heard me. He wasn’t being rude, or sulky, or impolite- he was just completely unaware that I had spoken.
Had I known that he was hearing impaired, I would’ve gone out of my way to be extra friendly. I would’ve smiled and gestured wildly and done just about anything I could to make this person feel seen and accepted. But instead, I assumed the worst and probably made Austin feel extra judged and uncomfortable.
As I was leaving, I gave him my biggest smile and wished him a good day. He smiled back and went on to the next customer.
I spent the whole ride home replaying the incident in my mind. If only I had seen the sign earlier, I thought, then this whole thing would’ve been avoided.
Except, that’s not really the point. It’s easy to be kind when you know someone’s story. You can hold the door open for the elderly, or feed the homeless, or make funny faces with the toddler behind you in line. But most of the time, we just don’t know what’s going on with another person. And kindness becomes a whole lot harder when you don’t have all the information.
Austin is actually very lucky to have a sign that so clearly states his situation. Most of us don’t. Most of our burdens are secret, kept hidden away from view, not considered suitable for public consumption.
That guy who cut you off in traffic? His mother could be dying from cancer. Your socially awkward coworker who never makes eye contact? He could have Asperger’s. Your husband who got home late from work and forgot to call? He could’ve just bombed a huge project.
We all have our burdens. We’re all eating different flavors of shit sandwiches. And most of the time, we aren’t privy to each other’s situation. We can’t see what is happening on the inside. We just don’t know what would be written on someone else’s sign.
More often than not, we’ll probably never even get the opportunity to know. And yet, we are so quick to judge, to point fingers, to place blame. We take everything as a personal affront instead of exploring the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this person could be going through something much worse than we realize.
We need to start giving each other the benefit of the doubt. We need to remember that kindness is always required, even if we don’t have an explanation. Being friendly isn’t something we reserve solely for people who deserve it, it’s for the people who don’t. For the people who might not appreciate it. Because they could be the ones who need it the most.
We don’t all have signs. But maybe we don’t need them. Maybe we just need to remember that we’re all in this together.