28 Jul 2012
Friendliness as adaptation
If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.
~ John Steinbeck
According to John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the great American writer, helpfulness is a phenomenon that naturally accompanies or follows poverty. You may have experienced this yourself, people in poor countries, areas and environments are often much friendlier than those in rich ones. Why is that so?
Maybe one reason is that poor people and have-nots have nothing to lose, contrary to rich ones. Rich people fear that they may lose their wealth, their social position, or other material benefits. They do not tend to give it away for free, and want to keep it for themselves. This selfish behavior is of course the opposite of the Christian virtues such as kindness and friendliness. In the bible there is the metaphor of the “eye of the needle” in Matthew 19:24: “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Poor people are different, they are not in situation where they can lose much. Quite the contrary, bad behavior can only make their situation worse. But good behavior, for instance kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, and helpfulness, can improve their situation by improving relations to other people, which may return the favor sooner or later, either directly (themselves) or indirectly (by others they know). Kindness and friendliness tighten the bonds in a social network. Already Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said “Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together”.
It is the opposite phenomenon of arrogance among rich people, which we mentioned earlier. Friendliness, kindness and helpfulness can be seen as adaptation to poverty, poorness and unfortunate conditions. They can draw the attention of the unconcerned environment to oneself and compensate the lack of resources by direct or indirect reciprocity.
Bad conditions may produce bad or even criminal behavior, but more often they do not. It is quite remarkable that bad conditions apparently produce sometimes good behavior. As Steinbeck observed, the things we perceive as good – success, prosperity and richness – are often accompanied by bad behavior, while the things we perceive as bad – failure, poverty, and poorness – are followed by behavior which we consider as good.
It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
~ John Steinbeck