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Monday, March 06, 2006

People Power

So I guess I'm a disappointed idealist. I'd like to think that we, as individuals, have the power to do things - to change things. However, I also think that the reality is that we, as individuals, don't have the power to change things unless we happen to run a multi-national corporation. Or, better still, know someone who runs a multi-national corporation. Yeah, OK, or if we happen to be sleeping with someone who runs a multi-national corporation.

Occasionally, though, I am reminded that we are able to make small differences each day, typically through the smallest of gestures. In my line of work, you would have thought I was aware of the power of a few words - I think generally I am, but sometimes I need reminding.

Today's been in a case in point. I fear that the second anecdote in this post is about to turn into one of those mushy group e-mails that you might get sent by a superstitious friend because, at the bottom, it tells you to forward it to ten people to be granted with everlasting love, and it tells those ten people to send it back to you so that you, as the forwarder, can get a sign of the everlasting love you've just been granted. (These e-mails tend to rely on a rather peculiar definition of everlasting love - namely, the willingness of ten people in your address book to send a daft e-mail back to you).

Now, I hate those e-mails (and probably disappoint those who send them to me by failing to reply in any way - each and every time they are sent). So I will understand if the fear that this post may turn into one of those sort of affairs turns you away. I'll understand if you stop reading. I won't ask questions later. Stick with the next three paragraphs, cos that's gonna be pretty typical McReadie. But you might wanna avoid the text that comes thereafter.

OK, so, the first illustration of the almost weird power of words - not negative, as such, but not massively positive either. Today, a new person started at our company. And so we held a little induction session for this new starter. And, as part of this, I gave a rambling little presentation about my role within the company. After the presentation, I had a little chat with our newcomer, and we got onto the subject of kids. She has a son. She then asked me, as though it was the most normal question in the world: "Do you have any kids?"

And I guess it is a normal question. But the first thought that comes into my head: "When did I start looking old enough to have kids?!" It seemed bizarre to me that anyone could consider the possibility that I would have rugrats. I'm only a kid myself! I went to see Chicken Little 3-D at the cinema! I love video games!

It's strange how someone else's words can make you consider yourself in a different way. It felt like the first time someone called me Miss McReadie, rather than simply calling me by my Christian name. Or the first time I was called "Madam". Or the first time I went into a computer game store, bought a game, and was asked if I was buying it for my kid. All strange happenings. All made me stop and think the way this morning's question did.

Reflection is a good thing sometimes. For example: my first thought was to be concerned I looked old enough to have kids. On reflection, however, I have decided to take it as a compliment that someone thought I'd managed to find a guy daft enough to want to procreate with me.

Alright, following the cynicism, here comes the mush.

Today's other example of the power of words, and of individuals. I was on the tube. It was pretty busy, but there was a spare seat next to me. Two elderly guys got onto the train. I went into my typical ruminations about whether or not to offer my seat to them (I imagine the first day that someone offers their seat to you on the tube feels pretty much the same as the first time someone asks you if you've got kids, and hence it's not a decision I take lightly). But neither one of the took the seat next to me, so I figured they maybe wanted to stand. Soon enough, a woman sat down next to me in the spare seat.

Next stop, said woman gets off the tube. One of the elderly gentlemen goes to sit down. Well, this was a cue. They didn't want to stand! It was time for some seat offering! No further rumination needed!

So I stood, and asked the guy if he wanted to sit down. He said that it was very kind of me, but that he was fine standing. As an OCD-er, I went straight to the typical "are you sure?" question, but he insisted he was fine, and revealed that the guy he was with, who had taken the spare seat, was his older brother.

Both the guys were old - in their seventies at least, maybe even into their eighties. They were also both American, and proved a phenomenon I've long believed to have existed: for some reason, elderly American men seem more "with it" than elderly British men. One of them recognised a PSP advert on the tube - don't imagie an eighty year old Brit doing that.

Anyway, the seated American guy next to me told me it was very kind of me to have offered my seat to his brother. And then he said some words that made my day:

"Your mama must've raised you right".

Six words. That's all. And yet they made me smile then, and they make me smile now. They made me smile because he'd said something nice to me. They made me smile because they were a compliment to my long suffering parents. And they made me smile because it's the most typically American thing anyone has ever said to me - the sort of line I only ever normally hear in the American film and TV that I love.

We chatted a little, and he told me he lived in Birmingham. I was delighted that he said it with American pronunciation (Bir-ming-ham rather than the British way of saying Bir-ming-um). For a moment, I wondered whether he lived in the UK - in our Birmingham. He must have sensed my confusion, because he started to say Alabama, and I quickly chimed in, saying the name of the state at the same time he did. He asked me if I'd ever been to the States - I told him no, but that I'd love to go. I got off the train, told my two new American buddies it was nice to meet them, that I hoped they'd enjoy the rest of their trip, and to take care.

And that was it. Whole conversation must only have taken five minutes. We didn't say much. But I connected briefly with someone from a country and culture that fascinates me, and he said words that made me smile.

I often marvel at the way babies and toddlers have the power to make everyone around them smile - just by being themselves. But it's days like today that I realise that still, as adults, we have some of that same power; that ability to have a positive impact on someone by just being us. We do have power - maybe not to change the world, but to change someone's day. Maybe we should use that power more often.

OK, mush over. And, I swear, if anyone appropriates this for one of the Read-This-Aloud-Then-Send-It-To-Ten-People-For-Luck e-mails, I will sue. I hereby give notice. I am not joking.


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