Stranger Changer: Make someone’s day in Three Easy Steps

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an award-winning Australian translator, essayist and novelist.

 

Around a hundred years ago in the working class cafes of Naples, Italy, a tradition was born that today is being revived around the world. It was called caffé sospeso, ‘suspended coffee’. When someone came into some money, he would order a cup of coffee for himself but pay for two. The café owners kept a tab. Anyone down on their luck could ask if there were any ‘sospesos’ and, if so, claim one. The Neapolitan writer Luciano de Crescenzo described caffé sospeso as ‘a cup of coffee offered to the rest of humankind’.

Global economic hard times have given the custom new life. Some cafes in France have put up signs indicating that they offer what they call ‘waiting coffees’ cafe en attent and that Spanish ones call cafe pendiente. In Australia, as in the US, there’s a similar trend, called ‘pay it forward’, though here it usually randomly benefits the next person to order a coffee.

The ‘pay it forward’ movement even claims the last Thursday in April as International Pay It Forward Day. But perhaps the easiest thing of all is simply to pay a stranger a compliment; and it won’t cost you a thing.

There was this elderly woman living in my neighbourhood who always carefully matched the colour of her hat to her skirt and shoes, and never went out without lipstick and eye makeup. She was always on her own, and it occurred to me that she might not have anyone to tell her how lovely she looked. So I did, and it really made her brighten, which put a smile on my face too. It’s interesting how quickly you can lift your own spirits by lifting those of others.

Here are a few easy rules to follow when complimenting a stranger:

  • If you want to say something nice about someone’s appearance, it should about the care and effort someone takes with the way they look not their natural attributes. ‘Those hair colours look amazing on you’ is fine; ‘You have a beautiful body’ is not. Don’t forget: you can also make the day of a sales person, or a waiter, or even the person handling your complaint at a call centre. If they’ve done their job well, if they’ve been pleasant and helpful, why not tell them how much you appreciated it? (Even better – tell their boss.)
  • If you’re walking down the street, the perfect place to drop a compliment on someone is when you’re waiting to cross at the lights, or as you pass. The idea, as with the caffé sospeso, is to send that little gift of your compliment out into the world with no strings attached. Make it clear you’re not trying to trap them in conversation.
  • Smile, deliver and walk away whistling.

Be the one that Billy Bragg sang about in his song ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’; leave that extra extra pint. You never know when you might find one on your doorstep.

Linda Jaivin is an award-winning  Australian translator, essayist and novelist.  You can learn more at www.lindajaivin.com.au

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