When is Unsolicited Help Worth Giving?

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Dear Miriam,

Yesterday, I passed a woman in the grocery store telling her kids she needed to find her glasses so she could read her shopping list. The glasses were clearly on top of her head. I didn’t say anything, but if I had, I could have saved her a few moments of annoyance in exchange for a few moments of embarrassment. When it is appropriate to help a stranger not asking for help?

Signed,

Helper in the Aisles

Dear Helper,

It’s a nice impulse to want to respond to the needs, both spoken and unspoken, of the people around you, though when to do so is definitely a judgment call. You could have found a gentle way to look at her and point to the top of her head, but you were within your rights (and hers) to move along without saying anything.

As to your larger question, some times and types of interventions are more appropriate than others, and you’re right to gauge individual instances on a case-by-case basis. If someone is in immediate danger, the right answer is always to help, with the usual caveats about your own safety and the sad understanding that it’s not always possible to, for example, help every homeless person you might pass in Center City on a given day. The more you wonder about whether you made the right call, the more likely you are to form categories and responses that feel right to you overall.

I can remember many times when I regularly pushed strollers around town on errands that people would hold the door for me. Each and every time, I said, “Thanks, but it’s actually easier if I do it myself.” This was a true statement based on years of personal experience, and yet, I felt totally unseen and disregarded when strangers thought they knew better than me and insisted on holding the door anyway. So, if you’re offering help, make sure it’s desired and done in a respectful way that prioritizes the person you’re helping and not your own perspective, which may not fit the situation.

In general, you are better off saying, “Do you need a hand?” or, “Is there anything I can do?” rather than intervening without being asked. In the case of the woman with the glasses, she would have found them eventually regardless, and taking the embarrassment potential into account is important. If it were her skirt tucked into her tights or her wallet on the ground, a brief and polite interaction is warranted.

We all encounter numerous people every day, and the best we can hope for is to do right by them, just like we hope they’ll do right by us. Sometimes that means pointing to a stranger’s head, and sometimes that means moving along.

Be well,

Miriam

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