By Emily vanSonnenberg on August 26, 2011 2:47 PM
By Emily vanSonnenberg
Philadelphians perplex me. I have lived in seven zip codes. Boston (my birthplace); San Diego (raised, 17 years); Galveston, Texas;Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Salamanca, Spain. For the past year and a half, my zip has been a Philadelphia code. I left LA to attend graduate school in Philly to study the 'Science of Happiness.' Thus, the virtue of kindness intrigues me. As a Philly-"import", I have come to believe that Philadelphia is the apotheosis of genuinely kind and friendly people, anywhere, though I know this perspective is atypical.
If you're a Philly native, you are now doubt aware of your reputation. Philadelphians are notorious for being rogue and brash. Philadelphia is infamous for its violence and history--and, its history of violence. Sure, one must be street smart when walking in Philly--though I'd consider that a desirable skill to acquire. As to its negative reputation, allow me to dispute that.
Every day, without fail, a stranger in Philadelphia behaves extraordinarily kind or friendly toward me. There are over 500 examples I could share. Some large, some small. No matter which way you measure them, kindness is kindness and friendliness is friendliness. According to research, kindness--just like anger and obesity--is contagious. The question that perplexes me daily and that I seek an answer to is, 'What makes Philadelphians so kind and friendly?' As a scientist, I know there is no one causal factor. But there is something tickling the people living in Philadelphia. And this tickle is contagious.
Let me give you a few examples.
Strangers say, "Hi" while waiting in line at Starbucks. At , a street cleaner will wish me, "Have a good morning". Surprised, I trip over myself. The remainder of my day, I am kinder to others because of that earlier kind expression. A Center City Macy's makeup counter lady gives me free facial massages each week (this counter will remain nameless, in the case that other hopefuls go begging for this indulgence, as I would too; I don't want her getting fired for being too kind). Then, there is a girl at my local Starbucks who gives me her favorite tea concoctions some days. For Christmas, she gave me a present. We are no more than acquaintances.
I'll never forget the man putting his infant into the carseat across the street from Le Bec-Fin--where I was walking. Mid-step, I sneezed. Immediately, I hear an ebullient holler, "Bless you!" I think to myself, 'Huh? Do I really sneeze that loud? This guy isn't even standing next to me!' After realizing that I am not in a romantic comedy, I thought (again, for the hundredth time), 'Where does this kindness come from?' I have a hard time putting my godchildren into carseats without catching their dangling right leg in the door.
One day, I caught a parking enforcement officer writing me a ticket. I approached him calmly (as I have learned from my past, failed aggressive exhibitions). To my amazement, he let it go. I didn't have to devise some convoluted tale about a non-existent grandfather whose wheelchair broke, blah blah blah. We enjoyed a friendly conversation. Upon departing, I felt humbled, and grateful.
One day, after an 18-hour workday, the Puerto Rican maintenance worker in my apartment building spent two hours circling locales on the paper map he'd brought, and then explained, "My cousin will take care of you on your upcoming vacation to Puerto Rico." I don't even want to talk to people first thing in the morning, much less after work. Situations like these engender, via modeling, enhanced kindness in me.
All this kindness and friendliness began the first day I moved to Philadelphia. Upon lugging my belongings into my new apartment, a nice young man approached me, and offered to help me move. It was cold outside. I relish efficiency and sincerity, and have a low tolerance for bull****. Thus, I'll do anything--dress incognito--to avoid superficial conversations. Maybe LA primed me for the worst of the worst. It did. Living in Philly, I quickly discovered that if people in this town are talking to you, it's because they want to be talking to you; if a person is not talking to you, you know they don't want to talk to you. Simple as that. No games. No ego. Just genuine kindness and friendliness.
The salient, daily display of genuine kindness and friendliness in Philadelphia is awe-inducing. Philly has made this cynic like people--again. I now smile at strangers. Living here has transformed me into a kinder person. Moreover, you can damn well bet that this "import" adamantly argues with anyone who vilifies Philadelphians.