A few days ago, as I was making my way through the city centre, I happened to be walking a couple of yards behind a man. As we went along, I noticed him dropping a piece of paper on to the ground. He didn’t stop to pick it up, of course.
Now if there’s one thing that really gets a whole herd (if herd is the word) of my goats, it’s littering. It’s completely unnecessary - there are bins all over the place, for pity’s sake!
What to do, though?
In situations like this, I usually just seethe silently, being far, far too chicken to actually tackle the offender. I have been known to pick up litter and bin it myself. I may even have tutted loudly on occasion, but that’s as far as it goes usually.
For some reason on this particular day, a couple of my self-preservation/embarrassment-limitation synapses must have been on the fritz, for I suddenly found myself speeding up to draw level with this terrible, ghastly, anti-social, vandal, this desecrater of public spaces, this contemptible scofflaw, this, this.... little old man.
The balloon of my righteous indignation popped. All the acerbic and, no doubt, hugely witty comments I was going to make just melted away.
Now, don’t get me wrong, little old men are not, per se, entitled to drop litter any more than anybody else is, but there was just something in the fellow’s demeanour that stopped all my windbaggery in its tracks.
Instead of, “Oy! You rotten litter lout, thanks for making the place look so nice – NOT!” I ended up saying “Excuse me, but I think you might have dropped something back there and I thought I should let you know in case it was important.”
“What? Where?” he asked, clearly a bit surprised to be spoken to by a stranger out of the blue. I indicated the fallen paper. He looked at it for a moment, then suddenly seemed to realise what it was. He grabbed it up quickly with many thanks, as though it had indeed been something of importance to him.
Now, he may have been an incredibly quick-thinking actor, able to pass off his littering ways as merely an accident, saving face in front of a stranger, but I like to think better of him than that. There was absolutely no trace of embarrassment or guilt about him (as there would be for me if I had dropped litter and caught at it) and in any case, we parted ways amicably.
What if I had simply gone ahead and berated the man for dropping litter when it had actually been an accident all along? I would have been deliberately unpleasant to someone who didn’t really deserve it – a nasty experience for him and certainly no credit to me.
As it was, I was apparently able to do someone a good turn, reuniting him with something important he might have lost.
A last-minute change in attitude on my part from outright condemnation to presumption of innocence brought about a completely different outcome.
Maybe I should try this approach more often – it’s certainly easier on the old blood-pressure.
Mind you, if I ever see some kid smashing up a phone box or spraying his ‘tag’ on a statue, I’m not sure that I won’t revert to silent seething – or even tutting.
Moral cowardice – I has it.