TERRY PRONE: Cold hands, warm hearts — but can kindness of strangers go the distance?

A still from the viral video

IT WOULD have to come from Scandinavia, wouldn’t it? These days, the minute any discussion gets going about some social progress our nation or any other nation wants to achieve, up pops an expert to tell us the Scandinavians have already done it.

The Finns, Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes get lumped together for generalised approval in exactly the same way as Japan, a couple of decades ago, used to be approved of as the example to be followed by Western industry.

The Japanese had the whole thing sussed. They had a handle on just-in-time delivery. When they went face down in the economic mud and even their cars started to be subject to mass recalls, those reflexively approving comments died away, although no country has quite replaced it on the industrial development front as the example in front of which we should all bow down.

There can be no doubt though, that if you want to check out egalitarianism, child care, elder care and ensuring everybody is treated with respect by the state and everybody else, the Scandinavians are top of the class.

Unsurprisingly, then, a neat bit of action social research about charitable instincts has just come from Norway. The charity that conducted the test is called SOS Children’s Villages. It set up a camera in a hidden location within the city of Oslo to record what commuters would do when faced with a moral dilemma.

Ordinary, unsuspecting Norwegians pitched up at a bus station to wait for public transport. Each became aware of a young lad, on his own, also waiting for the bus, but shaking with the cold because, unlike the other well-wrapped-up commuters, this kid has no coat.

The camera shows the youngster sitting on the bus stop bench, his feet not touching the ground, genuinely shivering.

What the other commuters don’t know is that Johannes is an 11-year old child actor with a considerable gift for improv. He doesn’t seek to engage with any of the adults as they arrive, tucking his hands into his armpits for warmth or rubbing his forearms to keep the circulation going while keeping his eyes averted from the newcomers. That makes it easy for some of the adults to ignore him at the beginning, as they do. Others, however, including a young man who arrives clutching a pair of skis, immediately talk to the child, asking if he is cold and why he has no coat. He was on a school trip, he tells them, during which the coat was stolen. And yes, he confirms, he is cold. Very cold indeed.

Now, at this point, logic would dictate that one of the adults should do a disbelieving double-take about the story as presented to them. “Hang on a second,” they should say. “Are you telling me your teacher didn’t find something for you to wear? Allowed you to be put in peril of freezing to death as you went home?”

None of the adults goes for that logic. Instead, they start peeling off their clothes. Parkas come off and Johannes gets tucked into them. Coats are stripped off and wrapped around them. Gloves and hats are offered. The most minimal response is that of a woman who stays in her enviably padded coat but wraps her sizeable scarf around him, muttering that he will now be cosy. A lot cosier had she donated her hooded padded coat, as opposed to just her scarf, the viewer might think, but maybe that’s a bit grudging. She did at least make a kind response to the child’s need.

That, cheeringly, is what the overwhelming majority of Norwegian commuters did.

Out of 25 people stopping at the bus station where he was planted, only three failed to give him an item of their clothing to warm him up, even though for at least one of them, handing over their top layer of clothing meant sitting in a snowy street for an unspecified length of time, wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt.

Indeed, it has to be said that the man who left himself short-sleeved seemed positively delighted to be warmed by nothing except his own virtue.

The end result, edited into a TV ad, is pretty heartwarming in its absence of begrudgery or cynicism.

In a world where hidden cameras usually catch people engaged in either murder, rape, and pillage, or activities disgusting at a less than criminal level, this TV commercial — reality TV in the best sense of a much- abused term — is a quietly comforting morality tale about the kindness of strangers.

One assumes that the rescuers of Johannes, once they had been filmed making their kind gesture, had their outer garment returned to them and were given an explanation for what was otherwise a strange incident. Hopefully, too, the young actor was regularly taken into a warm building during the two days of filming.

Johannes must have had a recurring need to get around a warm mug of soup or chocolate, because the bleakness of the scene is obvious, even in the short clips that made it into the finished ad.

But what happened in front of the cameras was real. The child was coatless and cold. Complete strangers took pity on him and made no big deal of the personal sacrifice involved. Game, set and match to the Norwegians for taking care of one of their own.

THE OBJECT of the commercial, however, was to raise awareness and funds to help Syrian children in need. Those children are freezing and in desperate need of coats and jackets. The film-makers wanted, first of all, to make viewers feel good, presumably through identifying with the warm-hearted people who featured in the commercial.

But the primary objective was rather more subtle.

“The goal was to touch upon the fear of becoming numb to crises that don’t affect you directly, ” said a spokeswoman for the charity involved. The ad doesn’t state that you’re more likely to help someone right in front of you than someone far away whose pain is more abstract. It simply implies that distance should not matter.

Of course it shouldn’t, and, at least when spectacular disasters like tsunamis strike, distance or difference in culture does not seem to inhibit the generosity of Irish people. But when finances are tight — as they are all over Europe right now — the old adage that charity begins at home can come into play.

That’s where this little piece of social research is so clever. The hidden cameras simply examined the behaviour of a small group of people faced with a moral dilemma. But they set up a much deeper and wider social experiment: To see how many of the viewers who responded emotionally to the ad will put their money where their heartstrings are and send clothing to the children who need it in Syria.

About 6m people have seen the ad on social media. It will be easy to do the sums and work out how many of those 6m pay up, long-distance.

In the process, they will demonstrate just how “social” social media is.


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