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Edmonton
November 22, 2019

The Kindness of Strangers

An unabashedly unscientific social experiment asks, “Can you help me?”

Abstract

Many religious texts have something to say about helping your neighbour. From kindergarten on, we’re told to share our toys and help so-and-so with this or that; we get a similar message in the job force. But outside our churches and mosques, classrooms and cubicles, how far does that helpfulness extend?

To find out, we conducted a little social experiment. Two of us – Bevan, a 23-year-old woman, and I, a guy of the same age – went off on our own separate ways to ask the same three favours. For each favour, we both approached 20 people (10 men and 10 women) each time, for a total of 120 people. Of those, 54 helped us out. That’s a 45 per cent success rate. Not exactly proof that the character of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire was right to depend on the kindness of strangers, but not a washout either. Here’s how it went down.

Methodology

Avenue set up three distressing scenarios to find out how charitable Edmontonians are with their money, time and information. A male and a female – assistant editor Omar Mouallem, 23, and psychology research assistant Bevan Kovitz, also 23 – conducted the tests for us at several Jasper Avenue locations on two weekdays in October.

Question 1: Can you help me look for my dog?

When you lose a dog, you can’t exactly file a missing pets report with the police. The best you can do is print out some posters or take out an ad and hope for the best. Bevan and I pretended to have lost our Jack Russell terrier. Why that breed? Well, if someone asked what it looked like, we could say, “Like the dog on Frasier.”

Apparently, the possibility of meeting a celebrity look-alike wasn’t enough. When help requires a larger investment of time and emotion, Edmontonians seem reluctant to help, especially when I was the one asking. I heard a variety of excuses. “I’m just getting lunch.” “I’m waiting for a friend.” And my personal favourite, “I’m not from here.” (Apparently, being a visitor exempts a person from being helpful.) They all seemed apologetic, it’s true, but apologies won’t bring back Eddie.

One Good Samaritan said, “I will look up this way and if I see him, I’ll come back, but if I don’t, I’m just gonna keep going.” In fact, he went straight to the parking lot across the road to search. (He invested several minutes looking and only returned after observing me calmly taking notes.)

Bevan had the same luck with women that I had but – surprise, surprise – half the men she asked were also eager to help. One group of four teen boys even enthusiastically offered to split up in all directions to help look.

Question 2: Do you know where Grant MacEwan is?

We’ve all heard the clich that men would rather drive around for an hour than ask for directions. If that’s indeed true, they might change their minds if they knew how easy it was to ask for help – and how much more efficiently they could find their way afterward. All but two of the people I asked for directions were willing to help. Bevan found the same thing – most people helped if they could.

But there were exceptions. One person answered Bevan by pointing vaguely north and saying, “It’s over there.” Another told her, “It’s behind you.”

Behind her? She was five blocks east and four blocks south of the campus. And then there was the man who must have heard, “Look at me and keep walking, please,” when I actually said, “Excuse me, sir . . .”

Question 3: Spare some change, anyone?

In a city where people are sometimes fed up with handing out change to panhandlers, we wondered: is there any goodwill left? There is, but it helps if you’re reasonably dressed – and you solicit women.

Bevan and I found almost half of the women who were approached were willing to dish out a couple of bucks for LRT fare. Those who couldn’t help seemed genuinely sorry. One young woman who initially rejected Bevan’s request left the station but returned minutes later, bus ticket in hand to offer her.

Men were a different story, at least for me. Sure, almost half of them were willing to help a woman, but when it came to their fellow brother – nada. Only two men out of 10 gave me change, the rest were unapologetically aloof. No excuse about only having a bus pass or needing the money for a return trip. Just a big fat “No.” (Though one man did encourage me to steal the trip, saying he often does.)

One knight in shining armour did go above and beyond for me. After initially saying no, he had a change of heart and offered me his monthly bus pass. Granted, it was the last day of the month, but his gesture went far beyond expectations.

Conclusion

Based on this highly unscientific survey, we’re a relatively friendly city, at least when it comes to sharing money or information. But time is not something most Edmonton urbanites are willing to give away freely. It helps if the supplicant is a woman and, when it comes to soliciting cash, it helps if you ask a woman. But no matter your gender, if you are really in dire need of help and are persistent, enough fellow citizens will pull through

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