Two friends discuss whether it’s selfish to act nice.
Years ago, my good friend Misha Glouberman and I ran a lecture series together called Trampoline Hall, at which amateurs speak on random subjects in a bar. He was the host, and I picked the lecturers and helped them choose their topics. I was interested in finding people who were reticent, rather than showy people who wanted an opportunity to perform. People lectured on many things: The number 32, getting a liver transplant, why we shouldn’t climb Mount Everest, Jews at Christmas.
After three years of working on the show, I quit, but Misha kept it running. A few years later, though, I realized I missed working with him, so I decided I would write a novel called The Moral Development of Misha. I got about 60 pages into the story of a man who wandered the city, who was nervous about his career and his life, yet was a force of reason in any situation. The writing stalled, however, when I couldn’t figure out how to develop him morally.
Worse than that, I never found the project as interesting as talking to my friend. I have always liked the way Misha speaks and thinks, but writing down the sorts of things he might say and think was never as pleasurable as encountering the things he actually did say and think. If I wanted to capture Misha, in all his specificity, why was I creating a fictional Misha? If I wanted to engage with Misha, why not leave my room and walk down the street?
One day, I told him I thought the world should have a book about everything he knows. He agreed to collaborate on this project with me, but only if I promised not to quit in the middle as I always do with everything. We came up with a list of things he thinks about, and those topics became the chapters of a book called The Chairs Are Where People Go.
Chapter topics included:
People’s Protective Bubbles Are Okay\n
Is Monogamy a Trick?
Sitting on the Same Side of the Table (in a negotiation)
Keeping Away People Who Would Be Disappointed
Why Robert McKee Is Wrong about Casablanca
Conferences Should Be an Exhilarating Experience
Making the City More Fun for You and Your Privileged Friends Isn’t a Super-Noble Political Goal
Everyone’s Favorite Thing and Unfavorite Thing Are Different
Wearing a Suit All the Time Is a Good Way to Quit Smoking
Over the next several months, we met a few times a week at my apartment, usually at around 10 in the morn- ing. We drank coffee and worked our way down the list. Misha sat across from me at my desk. As he talked, I typed.
Misha speaks in fully formed paragraphs, I was surprised to discover. On some occasions he would say something, then say to me, “Don’t put that in,” and then I would say, “But that’s the best part,” and I would do it anyway.
It was on one such occasion when I discovered that Misha believes you can put a price on a human life. Here is the conversation we had about it:
Sheila: I always get really pissed off when someone sees me running for the elevator and then they don’t hold it. I always hold it because I’m a nice guy.
Misha: I definitely don’t think you should hold elevator doors for people, and I don’t think you’re actually being nice. I think you’re trying to be nice, but here’s the thing: You’re in a building with, say, four elevators, and you’ve got this one person running for the one you’re in. If you hold the door for them, you’re saving them maybe the 30 seconds it will take to wait for the next elevator, and that’s the part that’s nice. But what’s not nice is this: You’re delaying the elevator by maybe five seconds. For those five seconds, that elevator isn’t moving at all, so it’s just wasted elevator time. That affects other people. There might be other people on the same elevator with you, and it’s not up to you to decide on their behalf to delay them. Similarly, there are people waiting on other floors for that elevator, and you’re slowing them down, too. So the math is this ... you’re adding a 30-second convenience for one person, but you’re creating a five-second inconvenience for: yourself, everyone in the elevator with you, and all the people waiting on the other floors. If the total number of people in that case is more than six—which I think it usually is—then the total amount of time you’re wasting is more than the amount of time you’re saving for that one person.
It’s different from just holding a door for someone, because that’s just an act of selflessness; you’re only inconveniencing yourself a little bit to create extra convenience for another person. So as a nice guy, you can still do that.
Sheila: So I suppose I shouldn’t be angry when a bus driver pulls away just as I’m running up to the bus?
Misha: Exactly! You think, Oh, it’s just a five-second delay for them to save me a five-minute wait for the next bus, but that means a five-second delay for the 50 people on the bus and the other hundred people waiting for the bus down the line. If the bus waited for everyone who came running up to it, it would run much slower. Sometimes you see people hold subway doors for their friend who is hurrying down the stairway, and that seems crazy to me! There are, like, a thousand people on the train!
Sheila: OK, well what about an airplane?
Misha: Yeah, well, there was that story a few months back—there was this airline pilot who delayed a plane. He held it for 10 minutes on the tarmac for a man who wanted to catch the flight to go see his dying grandson. It got widely reported as a gesture of great humanity and kindness on the part of the pilot, but I gotta say [laughs robustly] for me it was just another fucking elevator door! Like, you don’t know who else is on that plane. For all you know, someone on that plane ended up missing something equally insanely important because their flight was held 10 minutes. Or maybe it wasn’t even one person with something wildly important, but a hundred people missing something pretty important.
Sheila: But flights are always 10 minutes late. What’s the big deal?
Misha: Sure, but when they are, we understand that as being unfortunate and costly. We don’t try to make them 10 minutes late on purpose.
Misha: I think it’s really hard for our brains to do this math; to create an equivalence between something very significant and important for one person, and something less important for a large number of people. But this is what we have to do when we create government policies, for example. When we design highways, there are engineers at the government who can take a pretty good guess at how many lives it would save to make the lanes a bit wider, but we choose not to make the lanes wider even if it might save two lives a year, because it would cost an extra few million dollars. People say you can’t put a price on human life, but in these situations we do place a price. An even cheaper way to save lives would be to reduce the speed limit. But reducing the speed limit is inconvenient for many people, and it turns out that when really faced with choosing between having our commutes to and from work seven minutes longer or a few more people dying, we choose the convenience of the faster commute.
Sheila: Because we’re brutal animals!
Misha: No, not ’cause we’re brutal animals! We create so many safety regulations that save lives, but are costly. But we like to do it in cases that are worth it. And that’s the thing: the value of a human life is great, but it’s not infinite; it’s finite.