Bill Durkin gives cards, or Politeness Points, to thank polite train riders in Boston. He and Josh talk about how this simple idea can spread empathy.
Listen to This Episode
- Bill Durkin is an attorney who lives near Boston, Massachusetts.
- He started Politeness Points, a personal project to reward train riders in Boston who do good deeds for others. When he spots someone doing a good deed on his commute, he quietly hands them a small card to thank them.
- Bill’s purpose is to encourage empathy among Bostonians, who have a reputation for being unfriendly. Bill disagrees with this notion, and he is using Politeness Points to show that Bostonians take care of one another, too.
- Twitter: @politenesspts
- “Someone Is Saying ‘Thanks’ for Being Polite on the MBTA.” Article on Bill and Politeness Points from Boston Magazine.
Sample Tweets from @politenesspts
In the homework assignment for this episode, on saying “thank you” instead of “sorry,” I mentioned a cartoon by artist Yao Xiao. Click here to view it—I highly recommend it.
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
Bill Durkin is an attorney who lives near Boston, Massachusetts. He’s also the creator of a project he calls Politeness Points. It works like this: Bill rides a local train to and from work in the Boston area, and has done so for a few years. He got the idea to reward other riders when he saw them doing polite things for one another, like giving up their seats or guiding newcomers to their destinations. The way he does this is by handing out simple cards that thank them for being polite, and then he quietly goes back to what he was doing. He does this to encourage empathy among public transit users in Boston, and it’s a nice example of how even everyday tasks like commuting can be used to help others. I talked with him about where he got the idea and about some of the reactions he’s gotten so far.
I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Bill is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.
This is Episode 28. You can read along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/028.
I’m not sure why, but Bill’s story reminds me of something I learned about lines in high school geometry. In analytic geometry, a line is defined as a series of points that fits an equation; in other words, the value of a series of points matches the value of something else. If you have lots of little points plotted on a graph and enough of them resemble a straight path, you could draw a line to connect them. From there, you can interpret the value of the points as a whole or from the direction of the line itself. I’m probably simplifying the concept, but that’s what I remember of it.
Our lives can be viewed in much the same way. We engage in behaviors and experience events in the moments between when we’re born and when we die, the same two points we all share. There are countless possibilities, many of which we can’t even imagine, but each of us inhabits a series of points in time that make us who we are. In the end, we can be defined by these points, either in part or as a whole, be they “good” or “bad,” or in social isolation, there doesn’t have to be any meaning at all.
We often imagine “good people” and “bad people” as those who have made careers out of creating good moments or bad moments for others, like they’re always on, all-or-nothing. In reality, our assessments of whether people are “good” or “bad” are are often based on brief moments. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has pointed out that we encounter more humans while walking through an airport today than our ancestors living thousands of years ago would have seen in their entire lives. I’ve been alive since 1980, and the population of the United States alone has increased by 30 percent in my lifetime—that’s almost 100 million new people. You and I have more humans today than ever to sort through mentally, so we can never get to know most of the people we cross paths with. In that sense, a lot of our first-hand experience with humanity today comes from fleeting points in time that we share with strangers. These interactions also inform who we are and what we believe about people in general.
Commuting is a fine example where these points can affect our beliefs and behaviors toward one another. If someone cuts in front of me in line somewhere or if someone cuts me off in traffic, I have to make a conscious effort not to assume they’re a bad person. I’ve learned a couple of things over the years about little offenses like these: they’re usually not personal, and they’re only snapshots from people’s overall timelines. Maybe the other person was having a bad day and wasn’t thinking clearly when they offended me—I know I’ve done that before. Maybe they misunderstood the circumstances and didn’t know how changing them would affect me. Then, of course, maybe they were fully conscious of what they were doing and didn’t care, but that’s a topic for another episode. It’s natural to assume that someone’s history as a person is based on incidents like these, but we can’t know that for sure without knowing them better as individuals. In most cases, that’s impossible because there’s just not enough time for that.
I used to let little offenses like these diminish my faith in humanity, but I’ve gotten better about it. Unfortunately, I get the impression that most Americans don’t share my approach. I’ve mentioned my research on the decline of trust among Americans before on this podcast, but a new study published by the Associated Press and the NORC in Chicago shows that three-quarters of Americans also believe society is less civil than it was thirty years ago. On top of that, it appears that half of Americans think the campaigns for 2016’s presidential nominations in the United States have been mostly rude and disrespectful.
There’s this theorem taught in most intro to sociology courses called the Thomas theorem. It goes like this: “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” After a while, if enough people start to believe something about one another, like that we as a whole have become less trustworthy and less civil, then it becomes a justification of all sorts of socially negative behaviors. I’m afraid that’s where the United States in particular has arrived as a nation.
Here’s what I’m getting at with all of this: if you think about it, being human involves social geometry. We live in a universe where an infinite number of new events are emerging at every moment, and we generally use the ones we’ve witnessed to measure our lives. Being human means advancing your own timeline, your own series of points, and navigating the timelines of others, particularly when yours crosses theirs.
In order for people to be good, more of us than not have to expect that people can be good, or at least respect that everyone is doing their best to protect what’s important to them. Someone like Bill Durkin could ride the crowded train cars in Boston every day and assume that everyone on board is untrustworthy, uncivil, and ultimately no good, but he doesn’t. Instead, he empathizes with them, and that allows him to spot when someone does something polite instead of looking for confirmation that people aren’t worth caring for.
For that reason, I thought Bill would be an intriguing person to talk to for The Plural of You: someone who views an otherwise mundane chore as a chance to encourage positivity, to create moments of validation that we all crave. In his own way, Bill is making the most of these overlapping points in time that he shares with others. I’m glad he made time to talk with me about his ideas.
One more thing before I play our conversation: near the end, you’ll hear Bill bring up the 2016 presidential election and its implications on kindness. I’m glad he did because it was important to him, but I want to state up front [that] I don’t intend for The Plural of You to promote or denounce any political party or ideology. I personally don’t care who you vote for. Maybe you know something I don’t, and I’m fine with that as long as you go out and vote and that you do so compassionately.
Anyway, I want to thank Bill for talking with me about Politeness Points because it seems like a cool thing to do. Here’s Bill Durkin, the creator of Politeness Points.
Interview with Bill Durkin
JM: I have been wondering: what type of law do you practice?
BD: I work at a large international firm. My office is in Boston. I do typically government enforcement work and internal investigations. I help clients and individuals who are dealing with government inquiry, formal or informal. I might help a client investigate something internally.
JM: I had no idea that type of law existed. Sounds like something from a movie.
BD: [laughs] Lawyers in movies and on TV shows, everything moves a lot more quickly and there’s not enough paper.
BD: It’s interesting work. It’s unpredictable, pretty fast moving. I like it. I also do commercial litigation, commercial disputes.
JM: If you wouldn’t mind, tell me about Politeness Points. Where did the idea come from?
BD: I live in Boston, just outside of Boston. I take public transit, the subway, which we call The T here. I take The T into work every day. I have been for a few years now.
The way I was raised is to be conscientious and aware of other people—
JM: Are you from Boston originally?
BD: I grew up in New Hampshire, southern New Hampshire, not far from Boston.
As a rider, I would try to pay attention to, “Alright. Is there a pregnant woman getting on the train?” Again, I’m riding rush hour. Oftentimes, the trains are totally packed. There are no extra seats available. I would try to be conscious of, “Is there someone getting on who needs the seat more than I do?”
In the process of paying attention to things like that, I would notice when people would offer a seat or do something else kind to another stranger. I would also notice when people didn’t. For the people who did, I would think to myself, ‘Oh, that person earned a Politeness Point today.’ After a few months, I started to think, ‘Maybe I should get some sort of token or ticket or other acknowledgement made up.’
I finally did. I got some business cards printed that say “One Politeness Point. Thank you for being polite today.” I started when I would see someone do a kind act—I call it a polite act, but it’s really about being kind—I would pass it to them. I might tap them on the shoulder. Oftentimes, I wouldn’t say anything; I would just pass them the card. I started tracking it on a Twitter account and it’s gone from there.
I try to have them on me at all times. Usually, I’m giving them out when I’m on The T. You’re packed into a confined area with a bunch of strangers. It’s a good opportunity to witness some kind, polite acts, and it’s a good opportunity to do some kind acts. That’s where I give out most of them.
JM: What was the timeframe between when you initially had that idea and when you gave out your first card? Was it something you had to psych yourself up for?
BD: It took a while for me to finally decide, “I’m going to do this. This is totally weird, but I’m going to do it.” It definitely took some psyching up the first time I did it. You’re just approaching a stranger. Boston has a reputation for not being the warmest, friendliest place, which is not totally deserved. It’s a nice part of the country, we just keep to ourselves a little bit. People generally don’t like strangers approaching them and putting stuff in their face.
JM: Yeah, it’s a little disorienting. I could see that.
BD: Yeah. It took some psyching up to get comfortable and start giving it to people, but I got over that pretty quickly.
JM: Would you say your background in law, did that inform the way you approached people? I know they’re totally different things, but maybe public speaking and what-not.
BD: I guess. I consider myself to be an outgoing person. I’m not a shy person. I think that’s what helps. I don’t come from a warm and cuddly field. White-collar defense isn’t really a warm and cuddly field. I think it’s about being outgoing and being comfortable in your own skin.
I wouldn’t say that it’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. It’s serious but it’s a little bit on the silly side. That’s one of the reasons why I like doing it.
JM: Did you see another project somewhere that influenced the idea?
JM: Did you have any influences in general?
BD: At the basic level, the influence is how I was raised. My parents, extended family, teachers, et cetera, who taught me to be or demonstrated how to be empathetic and caring to other people, particularly strangers. At the basic level, that’s where my motivation comes from. As far as going out and making out a little token or something to recognize people, no. It was a creative surge I had. [laughs]
JM: Do you have any stories that you’re fond of from giving out these cards? I’m especially curious about the first time you did this, how that process went.
BD: I don’t remember the first one that I gave out.
Sometimes I will get up out of my seat, walk over to the person, and hand them the thing silently. Almost every single time, a person will just take it. ‘Someone’s handing me something. I’m just going to take it. I’m not going to protest.’ Then they’ll look at it. I almost never say anything, like, “Thanks for being polite today. You earned a Politeness Point,” nothing like that. I’ll usually just give it to the person.
JM: Do you wait for a reaction or do you hand off and kind of smile?
BD: I don’t wait for the reaction but I usually notice it. Almost always, people look at the card and then [laughs] you see a big grin on their face. Notable ones? The ones that I like the most are when I won’t say anything. I’ll pass it to someone, I’ll make eye contact with the person, and they’ll just give me a nod back. They’re not doing it…
JM: …for recognition.
BD: They’re not doing it for recognition, almost by definition. The people I give these to, they’re not doing it for recognition. They don’t know anyone’s watching them; they’re just decent people.
I don’t give one out every day. I need to be hitting it right. Sometimes at work, I’ll have to be going in early or coming home late when the trains aren’t as filled up. There’s ample seats, and it’s not just about giving up seats but that’s a great way to witness it. Here and there.
Last week, I gave out two on back-to-back days at the same station for essentially the same thing. There were riders on back-to-back days, a different person who’s coming on with a service animal. It was reflexive for these people who got up. They got right up, gave the person the seat, and that was it. Those are the ones I like the most.
JM: Do regulars recognize you on the same routes that you take?
BD: Nope. I haven’t had anyone say to me, “Oh, you’re the Politeness Points guy.” [laughs] I keep a low profile. Aside from maybe the people in the immediate vicinity, who witness me give some unknown object to a stranger, they don’t know what’s going on. I don’t do a lot of promotion of it.
JM: I was wondering when you came up with the idea if you had it in mind to start the Twitter account, for example, or if that came later.
BD: When I had the cards printed, there’s a Twitter handle on there.
JM: I see. That makes sense.
BD: Initially I wasn’t thinking about doing that in the sense that I use a hashtag or whatever. I’ve gotten my stuff retweeted a number of times in Boston. You could call that promotion, but I don’t actively promote it. I think our growth has been pretty organic.
It has been covered in local news media. I gave one [card] to one person one day. It was a pretty typical thing. She retweeted a photo of it, and that got picked up by a news reporter. Local TV news, radio, and a Boston Magazine article.
JM: I saw that article. That was a good article.
BD: Yeah, it was a great article. That was the fifteen seconds of fame that helped us a little bit.
I’d like to talk about one of those interviews that I did. I did one with this morning show guy on the local Fox affiliate.
JM: Was this in the studio or over the phone?
BD: It was in the studio. It was live in the studio. He was really cynical. He asked, “Well, why don’t you give out politeness demerits or something like that for people who are being rude?” He couldn’t imagine that there were nice people out there who deserved these kinds of things. All he was doing was focusing on the jerks out there.
JM: That’s not the point.
BD: That’s not the point of this. One of the reasons I do it is because there is so much focus on the negatives out there, everything in the world. Every leading news stories is, “Well, this is the bad stuff that happened today. These are the nasty people out there.” That’s why I like what you’re doing. There’s plenty of positive stuff to emphasize, and we should recognize it.
That was an annoying interview because he was cynical and couldn’t get past the fact that I wasn’t giving out politeness tickets to people.
JM: I know you didn’t start doing this necessarily to encourage behavior because you’re just recognizing people in your own way.
BD: I disagree with that, Josh. The people who I’m giving these to, at some level they’re already good people. I would like to think that they get to their desk that morning or they get home that evening. They take out the card, they stick it on the refrigerator, they pin it to the inside of their cubicle, they tell their coworker or tell their partner, and maybe it makes them be more likely to continue that good behavior. Maybe it’s going to encourage their coworker, partner, friend, whoever to earn one of their own, whether they get one of these or not.
JM: I see, kind of like a trophy.
BD: Yeah, a little bit.
JM: I mention that because I was wondering: is there an overall change that you’re trying to initiate?
BD: At a higher level, I’d say empathy: being empathetic, being aware of what your fellow man or woman is going through on a given day. Again, most of this is in the microcosm of your jammed public transit system, but it’s a pretty good microcosm for it.
It was frustrating for me the other day. There was a young guy who got on. He had a cane. He didn’t have any obvious disability, aside from the fact that he had a cane. We would go by stop-by-stop, the doors would open, people would come in. No one offered this guy a seat. The reason no one offered him a seat is not because they’re callous or bad people. No one looked up from their smartphones.
I want people to look up from your smartphone, literally or figuratively, and pay attention to what’s going on around you. Appreciate someone else’s struggle. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything in the world to help them out, but you may recognize that there’s some little things you can do that can make that person’s day, week, month, hour a little bit easier. We could all use that sometimes.
JM: For sure.
How long have you been riding this line?
BD: I’ve been on the Red Line since I moved back up here. I lived in DC for a few years when I was in law school. I moved back up here in the Fall of 2010. I’m primarily a Red Line rider, which runs from Cambridge into Boston. It runs through Harvard, MIT area, and I work in downtown Boston.
JM: What makes handing out Politeness Points gratifying for you? What do you like about doing it?
BD: I definitely do like doing it. I like the immediate reaction that I get from people. It just feels good to tell someone “I’m grateful for what you did. You did something good, I’m grateful for that. I don’t know you. You didn’t do anything for me.” Sometimes people have done things for me and I’ve passed them along. Primarily, it’s the reaction I get from other people.
As I said, I like to think they’re going to go into work and say, “Look at this. I got this Politeness Point today. No kidding. That’s kind of goofy.”
JM: That would make my day if I got one.
BD: Yeah! I would think that it would. It would make my day if I got one. I try to earn my own Politeness Point every day. There’s definitely some gratification in knowing that you could do a small act of kindness for a stranger.
JM: We kind of touched on this already, but is there anything you’d say you’ve learned from doing this? What would you like for other people to take away?
BD: I’ve learned there are a lot of good people out there, more than you realize. You just need to look around.
JM: So it’s a matter of perspective.
BD: Mm-hmm. As I said, Boston gets a bad rap for being an unfriendly place. We’re really not. There’s nasty people here, there’s impatient people here, but there’s a lot of good people around.
JM: Do you think handing out Politeness Points has maybe helped enhanced this perspective that you’re trying to promote, or did you have a pretty good grasp on it already?
BD: It’s definitely enhanced it for me. Like anyone else, I used to put my face in a book or be looking on my phone. I think that I was already on the right track, but this process has made me more attuned to it.
Can I say something else, Josh? One thing I’ve been thinking about. I like politics, I follow politics. Something that has been—the tone of the Republican primary campaign in particular has been so awful for someone who values civility, empathy, and kindness in general.
JM: I can agree with that.
BD: These people are running for president, which means they’re also running to be, I would hope, role models for young people on how you should treat other people, not just on the floors of Congress or in a boardroom but in everyday life. To denegrate someone’s appearance, to call people stupid—obviously right now, this is how I feel. I’m flabbergasted about it.
I think civility, mutual respect, and politeness should be playing a big role in who we choose as our next leader, head of government, head of state. It’s baffling that so many people in this country are buying into that and saying, “I want to be a part of that movement.”
JM: Yeah. Well, a lot of thoughts come to mind. There’s some aspect of cult of personality around some candidates.
I will say I do know some people who identify as conservatives or Republicans, they don’t necessarily buy into all the xenophobia and that line of thinking. They’re kind people and they tend to identify with more traditional beliefs, especially when they are supportive of their families, that kind of thing.
I’ve told some of these people I know this. When I see articles about how hateful Republicans are and that kind of thing, I go back and talk to them. I just say, “I know all Republicans aren’t like this. Thank you for being a good example.” They’re genuinely touched by that or at least I think they are.
It’s—I don’t know. I’m right there with you. It’s scary.
BD: I don’t mean to paint all Republicans with a broad brush. It’s just this campaign in particular.
JM: Right, of course.
BD: Some of the candidates.
JM: I guess what I’m trying to say is, when I see all the rhetoric going around, I try to think about these other people that may not necessarily have their voice represented right now. I’m just commenting, I’m not saying that against what you said.
It’s ridiculous to me that the cycle is so long. In other countries, it’s maybe over a month or a few weeks. This has been almost two years.
BD: I know.
Is there any other way to follow you online besides the Twitter handle? I know you said you’re not promoting it as much.
BD: No, just the Twitter handle, which is @politenesspts.
I’d like to say, Josh: I don’t have to be the only one giving these things out. This isn’t a Boston-only thing.
JM: Yeah, has anyone from other places gotten in touch with you? Have they talked to you about it?
BD: Yeah. I’ve heard from some people in other parts of the country. I’ve sent some to some old friends that have been interested in doing it. I would love it if someone wanted to make their own, team up on this, and start doing it in other cities.
JM: That would be interesting if it became a larger project.
BD: Yeah! I like to think of it as a potential mini-movement.
JM: It seems so—other than the psychological buildup every time or at least the first few times you hand them out, it seems like a pretty simple thing to do.
BD: It’s a really easy thing to do if you like talking to people. You’ve got to keep in mind: it’s not that hard to do because these people are already nice. I wouldn’t want to be in the business of giving out politeness citations to rude people. You’d probably get punched in the face or something.
JM: Yeah, and that would make someone’s day worse.
BD: [laughs] Exactly, including your own.
I would encourage, if anyone wants to do something like this, I’d be happy to talk with you over Twitter. I’d love all the help that I can get.
JM: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?
BD: Well, I went into my political rant. No, I think that’s it, Josh.
JM: Okay. That’s all I have.
BD: Okay. This was fun, Josh. Thank you.
JM: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I hope you have a good day.
BD: You bet.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
What did you think of this episode? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter at pluralofyou, or contact me via the website at pluralofyou.org. I launched a new version of the website, by the way. Now you can find show notes, listen to all episodes in one place, or get involved in lots of helpful causes.
The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in rainy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.
If you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit pluralofyou.org/subscribe to subscribe to the podcast.
If you liked my talk with Bill, check out Episode 18 with Kevin Adler. Kevin started Miracle Messages, a project that reunites those experiencing homeless with lost loved ones via social media. The more people share their stories on sites like Facebook and Twitter, the higher the success rate, and the Miracle Messages team has had some heartwarming successes so far. You can find my talk with Kevin at pluralofyou.org/018.
In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
The next time you go to apologize to someone for something, see if you can thank the person for understanding or for their patience instead. There are certainly times when you should say you’re sorry, but many times saying thank you instead of sorry turns a personal negative into a positive about someone else. I’ll post a link to a cartoon by artist Yao Xiao that illustrates what I mean. That’s at pluralofyou.org/028.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.