Last month, I noticed that the bathroom in my office building was getting a little messy, and I thought it would be a mildly instructive exercise to routinely pick up the trash from the floor instead of waiting for someone else to do it. I’m happy to report that the custodial staffing changes have stabilized and the bathroom is now less noticeably sloppy. So the mini experiment may be winding down, but here are a few follow-up observations, for what they’re worth:
Many people see themselves as separate from their environment. If you pick up the trash, you are not only interacting with your environment, but you are allowing the environment to make a claim on you — you are becoming part of it even as you rearrange it.
People don’t like that. They don’t like to be tied down to the earth or to a bathroom. They reserve the right — especially here in America — to go wherever they please, whenever they please. Maybe the mental process that results in a wad of trash landing on the floor in full sight, and then making the split second decision not to go retrieve it, has something to do with this. (“Must I do this? Always?”)
There’s also the matter of being seen doing it. Do it long enough, and in plain sight, and people will start to see you as a fixture, just like the trash basket or the sink. You will (somehow) become less human to them because you are not detached from the environment. Your feelings will count less. Maybe on some level we know this, and it makes us reluctant to act.