Motivating change – a lesson from 2 train rides

I recently took a course on storytelling. It was an eye-opening experience to learn techniques and skills involved in the art of storytelling to encourage change. How stories can motivate and mobilize people are often ignored, perhaps because storytelling is considered a “soft” skill. But I realize that it is usually not the facts, numbers or data that compell me to act. Of course those are important; but what moves me beyond my inaction is the power of people’s stories, like those told by the survivors of atomic bombings.
In the course we were encouraged to take note of stories as we think of. So here is one!

I had my son Naoki in 2015. I very much enjoyed my pregnancy – having an excuse to “eat for two,” wear comfortable shoes all the time, and ask my husband to go to the store for mango sorbet in the middle of the night.

But what I enjoyed the most is the genuine kindness of people I felt particularly during that time. I felt it most often during my commute to work. I would take two trains from New Jersey to Manhattan in the midst of the rush hours. Most of the time, someone would offer a seat so I could sit down. Such moments of kindness are too many to count, but there are two instances I remember vividly.

The first situation. I get into a busy 5 Uptown train to get to my office. The train is not packed, but unfortunately all seats are taken. I happen to stand right in front of a few young men sitting down, looking busy on their phones.

There is another man standing next to me, perhaps in his early 30’s like me. I hear him inhail, then say to me: “If I were one of them I’d offer you a seat.” Soon two women standing near us agreed. They are talking with each other, but their voices are loud enough, clearly to reach those young men.

The young men on the seat do not move – some even pretend to be asleep. The awkward moments last until I have to get off at my stop. The guy next to me is also getting off, and he is visibly angry, his body shaking. I thank him, tell him not to worry, and we part our ways.

The second situation. I am again on the 5 train toward uptown. This time the train is really full. I am small so I manage to push myself into a small space by the door. As soon as the doors close, I lean back. I put my purse infront of me to protect my belly, telling myself it will be a short 15-min ride.

There is a guy standing next to me. He notices my belly and say to me, “Young lady, you need to sit down.” I look at him and say, “I’m okay, I am getting off at Grand Central.” But he insists I need a seat. I think to myself – what do you want me to do?!

The next moment, he says in a loud, public-announcement tone: “Excuse me, everyone. This young lady over here is pregnant! Will anyone offer her a seat? That would be very nice.”

Everyone looks at me in the jam packed train, and I smile awkwardly. Soon a gentleman in suit stands up, but his seat is rather far. I tell my sincere advocate, “Thank you, but there is no way I can reach there. Look how many people are in between us.”

The guy tells me not to worry. He then directs people cheerfully. “Alight everyone, let’s make some room for this lady to walk over there! Let’s get moving.  Move just a little bit. Be nice to your neighbors.”

As people giggle and move, there magically appears a clear path between me and the seat. Slightly embarrassed but thankful, I thank him and walk over to the seat to sit down. The train feels more lively afterwards. People are chatting with each other. It is as if the guy broke the ice.

The two men had the same objective: To find me a seat. Nobody asked them, but they thought that was the right thing to do. But their approaches were vastly different. We know who was successful.

When we want a change to happen – as small as securing a seat for a prengnant woman – and when we deeply believe the righteousness of the cause, we could get angry. That can at times translate into the tactic of shaming: How can you do this? How can you not be ashamed of your behavior?

But shaming can often make the very person we want to influence more resistant to change instead. Like those young men, who probaby felt accused for sitting down, some of them perhaps unaware I was pregnant. Even if people comply, they are likely to feel resentful.

Or we can encourage people to act – and have fun with it. What was profound about my second experience was that everyone in the car, not just the guy advocating for me and the person who offered me the seat, seemed to feel good about it. Perhaps they are more mindful about offering someone a seat in the future.

It sure was a pleasant ride, and it wasn’t only because I got to sit down.

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