Buy a sandwich from the deli, or a hot dog from the guy on the street, and the rules of the game are clear. You’re told a price, you pay cash, done.
Reroll the tape, but this time you pay with a credit or debit card. Depending on the machine they’re using, there might be a spot for “TIP _______” and you find yourself wondering whether and how much to tip for that same sandwich.
When a friend emails you about a cause that’s dear to him, there a normal set of responses you have to that situation – nothing, something, it’s up to you, but the steps you take follow a well-worn path. Same story if you’re, say, at a Wall Street firm and a colleague asks you to buy a table at the benefit where she’s being honored – the numbers are just bigger.
On and on we go, hurtling through life with shorthand response to situations, because that makes things so much easier, because it feels like the only sensible way to process everything that’s coming our way.
But, just to be clear about what’s going on here, that shorthand is a function of norms, previous practice and social expectations. Scarcity and real economics have very little to do with how we act.
The fun part – a piece of Generosity Day – is turning these norms upside down to see what that feels like: a $20 tip on a $5 taxi ride; telling the hot dog vendor to keep the change; telling your waiter that you’ll also pay the bill for the couple sitting next to you; agreeing to help a person who emails you out of the blue even though you don’t feel like you have the time.
My bet is that breaking these norms feels totally outrageous, that your heart races a little when you do it. That’s the feeling of acting differently. Then, when the rush passes, your head has the chance to process how glib you often are with that extra $20, but right here and right now, at the hot dog stand, handing over a $20 bill for your $5 hot dog – and not getting the change back – feels ludicrous. Let the introspection begin.
One reason to give this whole thing a try is as an exploration of the norms and limits you’ve set around your life and your actions. They may be just right for you. Or your generosity experiment might afford a glimpse into how you could behave differently all the time – whatever “differently” means to you.