If you’ve been feeling optimistic for humanity, you should stop that nonsense right now.
Sure, one anonymous man bought 500 large coffees to be distributed for free to Tim Hortons-going strangers in Edmonton two weeks ago. Yes, it cost him $895.28 and reportedly triggered a wave of copycat acts of generosity. But the do-gooders likely didn’t stay around to witness what happens next — Yahoo! Canada News decided to do just that.
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Inspired by our readers’ encounters with Canadians prepaying strangers’ orders across the country just to make someone’s day, we’ve decided to test coffee shop goers almost 3,500 kilometres east of Edmonton. We’ve anonymously paid for up to 10 drinks of total strangers at four shops in Toronto. What we’ve seen surprised us, but, apparently, not the barristers.
Scene: Regulars and tourists form buzzing lineups at this scenic location facing the lake. One after another they find out that their coffees are free, courtesy of a stranger. “Okay,” they nod and rush off with free drinks. No one smiles or lingers to ask further questions. One regular gloomily shuffles off to a table clutching his free drink. The final, tenth person, buys a doughnut and leaves whatever’s left of his $4 for the next person in line.
“I’m not surprised at all by this,” the shop’s manager says of people’s reactions.
Scene: This location is considered upscale, with a patio, wooden trims and customers sipping icy mocha-somethings while working on laptops at solo tables. No one’s ever tried to pay it forward in here, I’m told.
“Free?” a female customer asks.
“Free,” the barrister confirms.
The woman giggles and asks who to thank, scanning the shop for a familiar face.
The customers here smile over free drinks; one man seems to think his drink is free because the barrister is flirting with him. He beams at her and his voice gets noticeably deeper. But not one leaves behind more change. The final, eighth visitor, huddles with three buddies to debate what to order after he learns that the drink will be scored free of charge. Finally he orders four extra large ice coffees, with flavour shots.
“Only one will be free,” the barrister warns sternly. The man pays for the rest and the group takes off.
Scene: This location keeps office workers and mommies wheeling luxury strollers caffeinated on the go. The customers here look more surprised about getting free drinks. "Free," the cashier has to confirm every time to excited customers. Many seem to think someone they know must have paid for it.
“I must report this to my boss,” one young man says, followed by, “where’s the hidden camera?”
Two young women giggle excitedly as their free drinks get brewed. One says something about this being the highlight of her day.
Dark Horse Espresso Bar
Scene: The coffee shop, marked with a big red star and long communal wooden tables laid out for hipster-customers to share, has seen people buy hot chocolate drinks for a homeless man across the street. Sometimes, customers used to buy several drinks a day for the guy. But no one’s ever left money for other shoppers in here. The visitors seem confused, even uncomfortable, as they learn that their Americanos will be served free of charge.
“You can always leave some change for the next person,” the cashier suggests to a few.
They shrug, toss a few heavier coins into the tip jar, but leave no pay it forward money with him.
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The science of it
“In contemporary American society, we’ve come to overlook, dismiss, or even disparage the significance of gratitude,” writes Robert Emmons, a scientific expert on gratitude who teaches psychology at the University of California, Davis. Apparently, we’ve grown out of practice, assuming that we’ve earned “all the good that comes our way.”
Perhaps, startled shoppers simply don’t think of giving away their change when they score a free treat. Since sharing wealth isn’t the only way to be good, we hope they still return the favour in another way later. And according to Emmons, expressing gratitude would be beneficial for them too. Researchers have found that the feeling of gratitude makes us healthier, happier and more connected, Emmons writes, outlining a list of other positive side effects.
Would you leave money for a stranger at a coffee shop? Let us know in the comments below.