Would you have expected this?

I was surprised by an incident – involving me – on my campus. I would not have expected this, and in fact I’ve embarrassingly agreed in print with Hume about our having a natural tendency to care about others, at least those in our community who are like us.

I had been at a large and fairly formal lunch. No alcohol, but I was in my best daytime attire. Shortly after I left the hotel on campus where the event was, I stumbled and fell. Fortunately, my left hand and arm got most of the damage; my head didn’t touch the ground and nothing was broken. But I was very shaken up. So I decided not to move for a while.

So picture this: definitely older woman, black silk trousers, quite nice red top, a rope of pearls, sitting on a campus sidewalk, her back against a wall, and her legs straight out onto the pavement. A few possessions scattered by her side. A university name tag still on her top.

I think something like 20-25 students passed me. No one stopped and asked if I needed help.

Of course, I could have asked for help, but decided not to when no one seemed the least bit concerned. But I hardly looked to be just enjoying myself; I hope I would have stopped if it were someone else.

43 thoughts on “Would you have expected this?

  1. Many people do not offer to help because they expect a person who needs help to ask for help and because they feel it might be invasive or even patronizing to offer to help someone who does not want to be helped.

    I’ve also had the experience of offering to help and having my offer rejected with sufficient indignation so that I think twice or more before offering to help.

  2. Just for accuracy: I’m pretty sure The by-stander effect is about when there are a number of people around. Each person was fairly alone as they passed/stepped over me.

  3. Bijan:

    I suspect that you’re young and good-looking enough that people still see you as a prince come to their rescue, while I’m old and ugly enough for people to see me as potential degenerate.

    When I was younger, people welcomed my offers of help with a smile.

  4. I suspect that you’re young and good-looking enough that people still see you as a prince come to their rescue, while I’m old and ugly enough for people to see me as potential degenerate.

    Well, that’s rather charitable of you :)

    Considering some of my sartorial choices, I’m pretty sure I frighten at least some people :)

  5. Bijan:

    You seem like such a nice, well-intentioned person that I’m sure that as you age, you’ll appear to others as wise and benevolent. In fact, you project goodness beyond any sartorical choices.

    It doesn’t help me that they removed one of my parotid glands, leaving me with a completely assimetrical face and that during the surgery, they cut a facial nerve which makes it impossible for me to smile conventionally.

    Now, since given my new face, I look like a monster, I stopped worrying about what I wear (which can also be seen as silent gesture of protest against fashion) and you can imagine the image I project.

    I myself am not at all benevolent, although I am rather kind and considerate. However, most people pick up more on the lack of benevolence than on the consideration.

  6. I blush!

    I believe my Movember mugshots conclusively disprove your incredibly sweet view of me, however I might cherish it :)

    I’ll make it a special point to graciously accept your offer of aid and be voluble in my appreciation as well!

  7. There are interesting questions about interacting with strangers, respect, and good samaritanism. It’s complicated, perhaps particularly in ordinary circumstances. (In extraordinary circumstances, it’s perhaps easier?)

    One thing is clear is that breeching the communication gulf is a significant issue. I can easily imagine people not helping anne (for fear of indignant refusal) and anne not asking for help (why bother when everyone is indifferent). (I don’t know if that was in fact the case, but I can easily imagine it.)

    I suspect that beyond concerns about rebuff, there are concerns about entanglement.

    I once had a bike accident (over the handlebars, smacked my head). I had a mild concussion and some scrapes. A good samaritan came along and called an ambulance. Next thing I know I’m stuck in the ER (unnecessarily, for sure). Plus, I have this person in my life (he lived in the same apartment complex). He was a friendly enough guy and often wanting to be helpful, but equally often his help was…odd. (I had my bike tires slashed and he was a big bike enthusiast so he replaced them with some really crappy, because old, hind end tires he happened to have. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get out of accepting and paying him for them.) At one point he needed a place to stay so ended up on my couch for a while.

    When I think about it, I remember a vast amount of annoyance. But it’s not like the guy ever did anything wrong per se. He was a good bloke trying to be helpful and friendly and being friendly, at least.

    But eh! Someone should have at least asked if anne was alright and helped gather up her things. 2 minutes, tops. A no-brainer.

  8. Well, I think this is appalling. I cannot imagine this happening on my campus, at least not anyone’s stopping to offer help. Actually, I would like to think this would not happen anywhere.

  9. I do not mean to be dense here, but Anne, are you certain that you didn’t look like you were just sitting up against a wall in the sunshine on a nice day? Students are pretty accustomed to sitting around in all manner of odd places and positions; mine are always stepping over each other. And if they were far apart enough that they were each basically along as they singly stepped over you, then I’m assuming they didn’t see you stumble and fall. Am I reaching too far for the charitable explanation?

  10. Hi beta,

    Just as a random data point: When I fell on campas after PT, the book I was carrying was about 3 feet away in the middle of the busy part of the sidewalk and I was cradling my hand sitting on pretty bumpy cobblestones in a place where no one would sit since it was in the middle of traffic. People stepped over the book :)

  11. BTW! I forgot to say that I’m glad you’re ok, anne! Falling SUCKS! It’s one of my most hated things. I fall less now, but it happens often enough to really piss me off. And hurt like hell.

    (Side note, on a different fall in town I had a very nice, rather dressed up women walk over to me (in the dark!) and check that I was ok.)

  12. How are your hand and arm, Anne?

    I once tripped on concrete steps on our campus while holding a large book, and I ended up falling such that my sunglasses cut into my eyebrow and I needed six stitches. I went back into the library restroom to clean up, mostly trying to hide the fact that I was dripping blood all over the place, and if anybody saw me they didn’t offer to help – maybe I was embarrassed about falling and also not wanting people to see me as needy? Nevertheless, if someone had intervened it might have helped me think more clearly about what to do next, as I was only three blocks from the ER and should have gone there directly rather than continuing my original plan and driving home first.

    In our local culture, at least, I think the inhibition against introducing oneself to strangers either to offer or ask for help is pretty strong, unless the help needed is both obvious and trivial.

  13. anne,

    i am so sorry both for your fall, which is always traumatic, and for the lack of anyone lending a helping hand. strangers, schmangers – how about being human, how about having some empathy, how about not making excuses for ANY of it. once during a snowstorm i crashed my car into a stone wall, going down a steep hill along the site where the local courthouse complex was. not one driver, pedestrian, or the people cleaning snow off the sidewalk directly alongside of me offered one iota of concern or help. i felt invisable, and very hurt, both emotionally and physically. i feel hurt on your behalf that some of your commentors veered off course, and failed to recognize YOUR feelings, focusing on the feelings of the people who passed you by, alone and injured, and did nothing. i hope by now you are feeling much better.

    karen, TC

  14. Anne: I’m sorry this happened to you. The following similar incident can perhaps provide context, although it sounds incredible as I re-read it. A few years ago, I was walking with my husband in a fairly busy railway station in Belgium, when he suddenly stopped, turned around and asked the floor “are you alright? Shall I call a doctor”. I looked to where he was talking to, and to my amazement, there was a woman (of about 70-80 years old), lying fully stretched out across the floor! Her eyes were open, but she didn’t move. My husband went to get medical staff from the station. What I am amazed at is that I simply did not see her, even though I walked right past her (it was a busy day, I was trying to catch a train, but still). I was not the only one: this was a busy station and dozens of people just walked past the woman. How could I not have seen her? It’s perhaps similar to that experiment with the gorilla in the ball game – you are so focused on one thing, you miss relevant context, especially if it’s out of the ordinary. I’m not saying this is why dozens of people walked past a person who was in serious distress (she had a stroke, if I recall well), but that was at any rate the reason why I would have walked past if my husband hadn’t seen her.

  15. this is sad news anne, and i hope you are feeling better.

    i agree that this doesnt fit with the bystander effect theory … it seems there is a real disconnect between people and community. many people feel the need to know others in order to feel an ethical obligation to assist and support. presumably each of the individuals who walked past you, hoping the person behind would stop and being sure to avoid eye contact, would themselves hope a stranger would stop to assist them should they ever need.

    the celebration of individualism in our culture is truly pathological. and terribly sad.

  16. I had a similar thing happen to me several months ago. It was summer, so campus was not busy. I fell while walking briskly to my office and (ouch) dislocated my left elbow. I could not move my left arm at all and was in a great deal of pain–here I am curled up in a ball on the sidewalk and I swear I heard someone yell “Are you okay?” and I yelled back “I don’t think so” then “Do you need help?” to which I yelled “Yes!” Then, nothing. More nothing. Then I yelled “Hello?” Still nothing. Then a young woman on a cell phone was walking in my direction and I asked her for help. She did help and called her roommate to come with car to drive me to the emergency room. Interestingly, while we sat on the sidewalk waiting for her roommate she confessed that when she saw me curled up in a ball as she approached she thought it odd and then “tried to make sense of it” due to my being situated between two frat houses–which presumably meant she should not do anything/leave me be (?!). I draw this latter conclusion b/c she followed up with, “It’s a good thing you called out and asked me for help.” She was very disturbed by her own response of “making excuses” not to ask if I needed help and seemed like a perfectly nice and helpful young woman, so I wonder if something like bystander effect was operative even though there was no crowd. I did not have clarity of mind at the time to investigate the “you were between two frat houses” as an excuse for leaving me be. fyi: it was 10am on a Tuesday the first week of our uni’s summer session.

  17. I think that Helen has brought up an incredibly important point: attention. Our “empathy chips” can’t fire up if we do not notice things. And our culture is increasingly one in which we engage in activities (iPod, iPad, smart phones) that specifically requires us to disengage with the environment around us. Clearly, this disengagement means we notice the bare minimum in our environment, much less pay any attention to our environment or the people in it. Even when all devices are off (i.e. no distractions), the behavior of not paying attention seems so ingrained that it requires special effort to check in with our surroundings. [Something as simple as being late or having something on your mind will make a difference in whether someone pays attention to their surroundings (see the Good Samaritan experiment with theology students on their way to deliver a sermon on, you guessed it, The Good Samaritan!)]

    Perhaps the best way (or at least the first step) to foster community, altruistic helping behaviors and ultimately ethical behavior is to teach students how to pay attention.

  18. Dear Folks, Thank you so much for your kind good wishes. Aside from feeling sore and crusty from various scrapes, I’m just fine.

    I think Helen and Soon-Ah are pointing at something very important. The Aristotelians I know best maintain that Aristotle thought virtue required a lot of education and training. We might be well advised to act on that. As it is, it seems quite accidental things can make a lot of difference in one’s behavior.

    I should perhaps say that the day got worse and I fell again. Again outside the hotel. The adults around me rushed over and pulled me to my feet, which was probably not a good idea, well-intentioned though they were. Then one person went off to find my partner, who was in the hotel. All really kind. Of course, I’m worried about falling twice; not sure why, but there’s been a lot of stress here. In the meantime, I got a cane to use for a while.

  19. And thank you to those sharing your experiences! I don’t think its exactly that misery loves company. It’s just nice to know what one is not completely the odd person out.

  20. Oh anne, that truly sucks. I hate second falls even worse.

    In high school I fell into the orchestra pit (hitting my head) and this guy ran up to me, grabbed me, and started shaking me “ARE YOU ALRIGHT?!?!?” “NOT IF YOU KEEP SHAKING ME!!!!”

    Canes are helpful but I find them a bit depressing. Try picking up some cane tricks ;) I got so I could reasonably twirl it and even do a flip toss.

  21. Hi Anne and Soon-Ah, thanks for the follow-up. This virtue ethical perspective explains why I felt bad about not seeing the woman, in the sense of, I felt culpable of not seeing her, and couldn’t quite understand why I felt culpable. Glad to hear you feel better. Sometimes you can make things worse by trying to be helpful (e.g., many people crowding around someone who fainted), but it cannot harm to ask someone to whom no-one is attending if they are OK…

  22. Anne, I want to add my thoughts for your healing and sorry about the fall. It was my intention to write exactly what has been commented on by Soon-Ah, so she has saved me time! I was going to add that our car culture also isolates people and creates a disconnection from others. I do not have a car and experience disregard for pedestrian safety on a daily basis. (In California where “pedestrians have the right of way”) When I observe people being oblivious to others because they are busy “linking in” on a cyber or electronic level, my immediate response is disappointment. I have kept these thoughts to myself as I fear I’ll sound too OLD. “Oh, the good old days”, etc. So I was very interested to see this come up and spark a dialogue on the ethics of your situation. I had to leave the University I was attending because winters were harsh and I live with a disability. I fell more than once while using my cane (was only in my early forties) and never had one student acknowledge this. It was part of my decision to leave! I was struggling with my illness and living in a city where I knew no one. To have this total disregard on campus added to my feeling of helplessness at the time. I would add to bijan that I also had a parotidectomy and know that losing the integrity of your facial nerve is a possibility. I am sorry this happened to you. I can relate to the other side effects of this surgery. I also had radiation which intensified the effects permanently.

  23. Joolfinder, I’m so sorry to hear about your experience. Did you understand why the students didn’t help you? I’m also wondering how we can do much as teachers.

    I think it was SW who had the parotidectomy and nerve damage. I’ve also had that surgery, but no rads, which makes me think they must have worried about malignancy. That must have been hard. I have a dear friend who had the nerve damage. Perhaps it comes in degrees, but I didn’t think his was so bad.

    I’ve been reading a lot on racism and on academic mobbing, and there is some reason to think that institutions can breed attitudes, some not so good.

  24. Joolfinder:

    It was me who had the paritodectomy. They have to cut a lot of facial nerves in the process. Some grow back and some don’t. For obvious reasons, it also leaves one with an unceasing sensation of dry mouth.

    I didn’t have any radiation because there was no malignancy.

    I’m sorry that you had to go through all you’ve been through.

  25. Anne:

    I’m happy to hear that you’re doing better today.

    Do you know why you’ve been falling or is it just a lack of attention thing?

    I myself find that as I get older, I need to walk more slowly and more carefully, especially with stairs and uneven surfaces.

  26. Psycho-sociological explanations aside–and they should be put aside if they excuse fundamental decency–no one should hope for good samaritans; they should be expected.

  27. Anne & Alan: I think that there are indeed good social explanations for the lack of Samaritanism in this case and similar examples. Institutions can breed bad attitudes, but this does not let people off the hook. Mason Cash (I seem to remember you know him well, Anne, so you probably know this particular work) has a nice paper on extended cognition and personal responsibility: http://philpapers.org/rec/CASECP

  28. Anne, I’ve seen similar incidents a number of times. I always offer to help. I do notice a lot of young people on cell phones, speaking or texting, oblivious to the injured or distressed person before them. This is not to say they are not compassionate, but as Hume notes, compassion needs to be cultivated, especially to take one out of one’s own narrow circle.

  29. Jackie, do you have any idea about what philosophy profs can do to cultivate compassion?

    Actually, I’m looking at one aspect of the situation as I address the following issue: analytic philosophers and critical race theorists by and large have very diiferent responses to the question of whether we are responsible for our bigotted reaction if the bigotry is below consciousness.

    One author recalls that a very prominent heart surgeon only operated on white men, though he was stunned when this was pointed out to him.

  30. I should add that one recommendation from people working in critical race theory is that people need to become aware at least that they are biased. Perhaps, then, we can try to encourage people to become more aware of their being shut off.

  31. When I teach Kant–whom I abhor theoretically–I try to emphasize the second form of the CI–respect for persons. I use examples of not just using people–checkout persons and baggers at markets–but looking them in the eye and thanking them, and expecting as well some social acknowledgement. Another example–of respect expressed sexually in loving relationships as opposed to prostitution–and the fact that so many marriages are functional forms of using one another as means rather than ends–has resulted in at least two divorces that students later revealed to me as the result of the Kant lecture. From a Kant lecture for crissakes! And I admit that I have taught myself even if I am a Kant skeptic–my everyday life in checkout lines and simply walking down the halls of my campus has changed over the years thanks to Kant. He may be wrong–but ultimately in right ways.

  32. I agree with you, Alan, about the value of Kant on humanity as an end in itself. Useful for students also are Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of the Good (get over yourself), Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving (love for adults), and Hume on humanity in EPM. Just getting students to talk about the issues raised goes some of the way. Note that both Murdoch and Fromm can be taught in Philosophy of Psychology or Phil. Mind as well as in Ethics courses.

  33. Did the passers-by actually see you fall? It would surprise me if no one said anything or offered help in that case. But your description makes it sound like you were sitting while people walked by. I guess someone might have interpreted your “scattered” possessions as a sign of your mishap. On the whole, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if people weren’t struck by a person sitting on the ground as someone obviously in distress.

  34. Anne:

    I have been thinking about your “Very Bad Day.” I wonder if you have thought of consulting either (1) an inner ear specialist or (b) a neurologist.

    I know this does not address the ethics of it all, but I am worried because a friend started falling and did nothing about it. By the time she did, there was serious damage. I don’t mean to scare you, but if you are like many of us you will brush it off. I just want to counsel against that.

  35. I believe no one has mentioned this, but this type of incident strikes me as being especially typical of the US (not sure how it is in the UK or certain parts of Europe). Where I live, neglect to help under similar circumstances is almost unimaginable. (In fact, it’s commonplace to hear people saying, in the context of considering immigration to the US: “America is great — but if you had a heart attack in the street, no one would help you”!) And American sociopolitical attitudes (radical individualism, certain antisocial inclinations, etc.) surely have something to do with all this.

    So, for all those feeling disappointed with humankind — don’t worry, it’s not humankind, just Americans! Which may suggest that perspectives from political theory and philosophy are needed here no less, perhaps more, than perspectives from either Humean or Kantian ethics.

  36. i hope you would have too…i know i would have so long as you did in fact look as though you shouldnt be down there…last night i went downtown on the train, this in SLC, and the girl sitting across from me i noticed was silently crying…i’m sure it was embarrassing to her but to me also in that i really don’t know how to respond these days to people who are in distress…the reactions tend to be along the lines of “mind your own business” (however i still try; damn the torpedoes and all that) anyhow, i looked through my pockets for a tissue or something that she might use to dry up the tears only finding a headband earwarmer thingymcbob….so i asked if she’d like to use it, to which she said no but thank you…having done what i could i tried to lighten her spirits a little, trying not to be too intrusive or overbearing, and it seemed to work a bit…i got her to laugh a couple times and she thanked me when i got off…i don’t know how the remainder of her night went but i hope that for that brief moment it was a little easier, a bit less harsh…i usually don’t “kiss and tell” of my actions out in society because it’s not a game of who can do what and how much but whether do you really care about our fellow travelers on this rock or are you just going about the motions…i don’t expect nor wish for any karmic payback for the little things i do…i do it because i feel more human and in hopes that they’ll pay-it-forward to another…the shock of some to reject payment and ask to pay-it-forward is well worth the small amount of time to maybe put a little bit of faith in humanity back in someones life….I’d of helped you professor, at least i hope i would have…CHEERS, merry X-0mas

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