Pay-it-Forward: Altruism or Cynicism? I Can’t Decide

A Florida man made headlines last week when he deliberately ended a 458-car pay-it-forward streak at a local Starbucks, telling ABC News  he thinks people participate in these types of events out of “guilt” and not out of “generosity.”

The man is quoted as saying “When the barista asks you to pay it forward, it is no longer spontaneous.”

He likened pay-it-forward chains to an organic marketing ploy for the coffee giant, and said it takes away the “genuineness” of giving, especially when people deliberately drive to a particular store to participate.

Peppered throughout this news story, were links to other stories about similar events, like the one reported in Newington, CT reported by ABC News on December 26, 2013. In four hours, the Newington, Conn., Starbucks location, the number of people who participated in paying it forward topped 640.

The barista was ecstatic.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Nicole, the shift supervisor at the location, who is not permitted to give her last name per store policy told ABC News. “I love this company so much and I’m so proud to work for them. This is what our company embodies. We’re all really excited about it.”

One week before Newington, a Starbucks in Reno hit a record 73 times. Customers contributed to a revolving gift card to continue the pay it forward momentum. The run ended with a computer glitch much to the dismay of the barista working the drive through that day told ABC News.

Reading the comments that inevitably followed each article, sentiment was emphatically in favor of the Florida gentleman. People said they didn’t consider paying for someone else’s luxury, an expensive cup of coffee, an act of charity. Many felt that if a person can afford a designer cup of coffee, they don’t really fit the mold of being in need of kindness. One commenter suggested shoveling a senior’s driveway instead, and asked “When was the last time you visited your grandparents?”

Kindness, like beauty it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Is it lovely to reach the drive-through and find someone has paid for your coffee? Yes. Is it wonderful to pass that feeling along? Yes. Is it kindness to specifically join a coffee-conga line to have your coffee paid for while you pay for the next one? Is it? Maybe. Does it make you feel good about yourself? Does it brighten someone else’s day? Perhaps.

In the end, the Florida man tipped the barista $100 after refusing to take part in what he considered to be a staged and gimmicky attempt at kindness. He felt, and perhaps in the wake of a recent New York Times feature on the difficulty baristas face due to automated scheduling, it was even more prevalent in his thinking that it’s hard to be a barista and he felt his money was better given to someone in a relatively low wage job, than to the “middle-class people sitting in their cars at a drive-thru, sipping a $5 drink and worrying about someone breaking the ranks.”

I recently sent a $5 Starbucks e-gift card to my good friend, whom I know was in the midst of a crazy work travel schedule to tell her I miss her and love her. I felt good, and she felt good, even though she can certainly afford her own coffee.

And therein lies the question. If I feel good, and you feel good, doesn’t that count? If I believe I am contributing something to my community, whether it is stressed out commuters, or underpaid baristas, doesn’t that count as kindness?

What do you think?