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What You Can Learn From Buying Coffee for Strangers

A blogger's experiment with kindness pays off in many ways


It was the typical crazy Monday morning. I was running late and didn’t even have time to make myself a cup of coffee before running out the door. Eying the short drive-through line at the Starbucks on my way to work, I determined that with a little luck, I could grab an iced latte and still make it to the office in time. (And yes, up North where I live, drive-through Starbucks are abundant. Even in the Minneapolis city limits.)

I drove up to the window, the barista handed me my drink and said, “The woman in the car ahead of you wanted to take care of  your order, so here it is — have a great day.” I’d have paid it forward if there was a car behind me, but there wasn’t, so I just put an extra dollar in the tip jar and wondered about the kindness of this stranger. Had she seen my frazzled look in her rear-view mirror? Or was it just the feeling of wanting to be generous, to do something nice for another human, that came over her? I wanted to catch up and thank her and let her know that indeed, she’d made my day. But she was long gone.

Paying Back Kindness

Instead, I bought a grande mocha for the person in the car behind me the next time I visited that same drive-through — you know, just paying back the kindness of the previous stranger. It felt good.

I was reminded of this episode when I read Melanie Sheppard’s essay on buying a stranger coffee every week for a year published recently in Thrive Global. The Australian blogger/writer decided that every week for 12 months, she would pick up the bill for someone at a coffee shop and leave before they knew.

In the piece, she quotes the Dalai Lama: “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions,” and continued in her own words:

“During a difficult period of my life I leant strongly on the philosophy of Buddhism. Among the many lessons I learned is that the gift of giving not only brings so much satisfaction and happiness to the giver, but it also has the ability to create a ripple effect. I learned that one small act of kindness can mean so much to so many.”

Family Project and Conversation Starter

Sheppard’s “project,” as she called it, became a joy in her own life, and eventually, a family project. It also became an important conversation starter when she finally shared what she’d been doing with her daughters one day.

“We talked about life, about struggles and why it is that some people find themselves in the positions they do,” she wrote. “We talked about empathy, understanding and the need to educate ourselves. But, most importantly, we talked about our social responsibility to help others when we can.”

Indeed, in a time when we may seem more divided than ever over politics and personal beliefs, it is so important to remember how we’re united in our humanity. And our love of coffee.

By Shayla Stern
Shayla leads the editorial team and content strategy as the Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. She has spent a career in digital media journalism and digital strategy at organizations including washingtonpost.comEdmunds.comCars.com and Fast Horse, and worked as a consultant for several years. She also was a media professor at the University of Minnesota and DePaul University and  has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. She can be reached at [email protected].@shayla_stern

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