6 Very Good Reasons to Give the Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump

10 minute read

(14 if paint chips were one of your favorite snack foods as a child.)

Adam Shepard
Co-founder and COO, Practice Empathy™

Perhaps  you're the same as me or perhaps not, but my own personal hell is the DMV, the proctologist, and the dentist. In that order. I loathe going to the DMV. Tests and plate renewals and vehicle registration and title transfers and processing a new license, and I forgot that second proof of address at home, and what a mess. Even the DMV itself rolls out of bed in the morning, slogs into the kitchen, pours half a can of Red Bull into its coffee, and says, “Bloody hell. Another day to face a bunch of ingrates.”

When I enter, I take my number, my own little lottery ticket, and attempt to find a seat. There are none, of course, so I cram myself against a wall between a guy who maybe showered last Tuesday and a woman who neither dressed for the occasion nor cares about the 300 people who will see her drivers license photo over the next 5 years.

I intently and meticulously applied an extra half ounce of spiking glue this morning, and this is the company I’ve found myself among?

The number that glows red is on 12, and I look down to see 42 in my hand. Time drags on and with it all sense of sanity. My mind reels as I check my pockets: do I have two forms of ID, authorization form 19-B, a blood sample from my pet chinchilla Fifi who died when I was in second grade? The morning passes. I wait, and I wait, and the clerk finally calls out “42”. I leap out of my chair with very nearly as much enthusiasm as that time back in 2015 when George Gray called me down on The Price is Right

And then a strange thing happens. For whatever reason--I suppose he was caught up in the excitement--my unkempt and unshowered neighbor extends his fist and offers me a bump. He is still stuck here, stuck in a place that holds no regard for time, but he was able to celebrate with my joy. 

That dude literally just made my day.  

I approach the counter to do my business with the solemn-but-not-melancholic-looking clerk, a middle-aged chap with moderately-thinning hair, red glasses, and semi-drooped shoulders who looks like he’s been at this for quite a while. “Reggie”, his crooked name tag tells me, but he just about could have doubled as the dad from Coraline. 

These days he’s biding his time until he gets to take a fifteen with his Cheez Its and a Sprite. No pep to his step. No resentment. Just kind of there, hanging out, paid by the hour, ready to help but in no particular hurry. 

I’ve been here for two hours, Reggie for lord knows how many years. And so the question on my mind in that moment is a simple one: “Should I give this guy a fist bump?” I mean, I daresay it’s not likely he’s expecting it, and it’s certainly not obligatory, but if I’m fairly weighing the pros and cons here, I know what the fist bump from the smelly fella just did for me, so on which side do I currently fall?  

To fist bump the clerk at the DMV or not? 

 Gosh, what a great question!

Reason #1 to Give The Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump: Very Unlikely This Was Their Childhood Dream

A lot of us have shit jobs, but we go to these jobs so we can make rent on the first and have some coin leftover to occasionally upgrade from top sirloin to USDA Choice ribeyes on Friday nights. Is this guy at the DMV any different? 

At least your shit job isn’t quite as thankless. There aren’t a lot of jobs that are as customer-facing where that customer both desperately never wanted to be there in the first place and is presently anxious just to get the heck out of there as soon as possible. A lot of us get to shield ourselves from the tension of irate or restless customers by screaming and cursing at the computer, taking a moment to do a little lamaze, screaming and cursing at the computer again, and thenceforth sending a perfectly calm and well-composed reply.

Yeah, I said it. Thenceforth.

Maybe all of that is true. Or maybe not. Maybe you love ribeyes. Or maybe you don’t eat meat. But I know, for sure, this: when that clerk was born, he wasn’t held to the moon at the edge of a cliff with his family gathered around so they could look one to the other and nod in approval as they determined, “You are going to be...a clerk at the DMV.” The DMV is the backup to your backup option. It is the Diet Rite when the 7-11 down the street is out of both Coke and Pepsi. We can show a little respect for that.

Reason #2 to Give The Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump: It Will Make You Happier, Healthier, and Wiser 

Healthcare costs are scandalous, I don’t care from which intersection of latitude and longitude you’re currently reading this. Higher education costs are shameful, notably in the U.S. Gym membership fees add up quickly, especially if you’re blowing your cake at the kinds of needlessly extravagant gyms that I go to, the ones that offer fresh, plush bath towels and who add in that eucalyptus aroma to their steam rooms. Really helps you relax and also makes you a hit among the koalas.

But making the decision to consciously and diligently practice empathy on a daily basis? 100% free. No premiums. No tuition bills. No contracts.

There are many ways to stay fit of mind and body and to keep our heart valves vital and strong and pumping blood as if we were ten years younger. Showing compassion for the world around us has proven to be a leader in advancing our lives in a positive direction. Empathy connects us to others, regulates our emotions, guides our moral compass, increases our sense of community, reduces burnout, and improves our well-being. It is fascinating how one can come close to near-perfect health through compassion.

Science tells us that empathetic people are healthier. They are better prepared to deal with stress than those without compassion, and their blood pressure is lower. They experience lower levels of depression or anxiety. They are usually in good moods and have robust immune systems, leading to longevity and happiness. Nevermind that empathetic people are generally kinder to their bodies at the gym and in the kitchen, compassionate people are on a better track anyway:

A clue to this question rests in a fascinating new study by Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson that evaluated levels of inflammation at the cellular level in people who describe themselves as "very happy." Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases, and it's generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain "very happy" people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the "good life" (sometimes also know as "hedonic happiness") had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as "eudaimonic happiness") had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning. 

Selfless people also tend to have higher incomes, which is nice, but even better, empathetic people are happier. From a report in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology: “Human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Survey data from 136 countries were examined and showed that prosocial spending is associated with greater happiness around the world.” 

And this isn’t, of course, limited to the developed world: 

The robustness of this mechanism is supported by our finding that people experience emotional benefits from sharing their financial resources with others not only in countries where such resources are plentiful, but also in impoverished countries where scarcity might seem to limit the possibilities to reap the gains from giving to others.

Can you put a price on that? Well, not directly, necessarily, but it’s simply worth noting that those who spend time and money on others are happier than those who spend it just on themselves.

Reason #3 to Give The Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump: The Little Things Matter 

We live in the extremes--socially, politically, professionally, cognitively. We are told that big news matters; big moves matter. We pursue exaggerated momentum in the stock market, major upswings in our lives, and 11-pound pizzas

And on our way there, don’t we often forget the tiny bits and pieces that comprise the fabric of our day? The merits of eye contact, maybe, or a smile, or a nod? 

A personal pan pizza? 

Life is not Christmases and birthdays. Life is a random Tuesday morning in March or a Wednesday evening in September. Among the happiest casual moments of my life are when I’m driving on the 405 out here in California, and I tap my brake to let someone merge, and they raise their hand to thank me. Or the other way around: they allow me in, and I shoot them a wave. I feel validated for a spell, like the entirety of human existence is back in alignment, and everything is going to be okay after all. Think about that: no one (NO. ONE!) is happy driving on the 405 out here in California. But somebody can create a moment for me; or I can create one for them.

The little things matter. Little moves matter. If I take two reusable bags to the grocery store today instead of using plastic, it’s borderline meaningless. But then it adds up over the month, the year, a lifetime of visits to the grocery store. And if my neighbors do it, and their cousins do it, and their friends do it, and, well, that adds up to a fuckton of plastic bags that aren’t going to the landfill or into our oceans (a fuckton, of course, being the standard unit of measurement for plastic bags, equal to 145 shit tons or 4620 assloads). 

I get it, though. Perhaps you’re not into smiles or fist bumps or, well, any kind of human interaction at all. Cool. But I still have good news! There will be 4,317 little opportunities within the next 24 hours for you to practice empathy and pay forward those forgotten furtive deeds that have added up to make a big impact in your own life: 

Park within the lines. 

Re-rack your weights at the gym. 

Sneeze into your elbow. 

Pull forward to the first gas pump. 

Grab that piece of stray litter off the ground and dispose of it. 

If the person behind you in the grocery line has just two items, let her go ahead of you.  

Return your shopping cart to the shopping cart corral. 

Stop answering yes-or-no questions with “Does a bear poop in the woods?” 

Pick one. Do it. And if it makes you warm inside, try another. 

Or better yet, invent your own. 

Reason #4 to Give The Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump: Empathy is Contagious 

The world is sometimes dark, and life is seldom easy. When we read the news, it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the tragedies that afflict people worldwide. Murder in Chicago; famine in Africa; wars in the Middle East; and the politics of it all. The burden of our lives is too heavy to carry alone. Our instinct is to try and preserve our own energy so that we can survive. But the reality is that showing compassion to others actually relieves the burdens in our own lives too. And, more often than not, that compassion will be returned by others so that both find support. 

I’ll say it again: one act of compassion can add just a little brightness to the world and slowly starts to replace the bad things with the good. Even small actions can have a significant impact, as it is from the small things that big things happen: one meal isn’t going to win the battle to abolish world hunger, but it’s a better start than no meal at all. 

Empathy is just as contagious and communicable as giggles in a puppy shop and easier to explain than why we yawn when someone else yawns. The neurons in our brain are preset to mimic the behavior around us. Jonathan Haidt’s research on elevation explains that the emotional effect of seeing one person commit an altruistic act warms us (physically and figuratively) and inspires us to want to repeat those very same acts. The ripple effect extends one act into many, but it’s more than a butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand and a homeless person in Cleveland gets a dollar or whatever that theory was about: our actions right here in our town right now can--and do--reverberate among ourselves. From Haidt’s work:

One study induced elevation in a laboratory by showing one group of participants video clips from a documentary about Mother Teresa. Control groups saw other videos, including an emotion­ally-neutral but interesting documen­tary, and a comedy sequence from the television show America’s Funniest Home Videos. Compared to participants who watched the control videos, partici­pants who watched the elevating video clip reported feeling more loving and inspired, they more strongly wanted to help and affiliate with others, and they were more likely to actually volunteer to work at a humanitarian charity organization afterwards.

Equally as interesting, a study from Harvard:

In Studies 1 to 3, participants decided how much to donate to charities before learning that others donated generously or stingily. Participants who observed generous donations donated more than those who observed stingy donations. Crucially, this generalized across behaviors: Participants who observed generous donations later wrote more supportive notes to another participant. In Studies 4 and 5, participants observed empathic or nonempathic group responses to vignettes. Group empathy ratings not only shifted participants’ own empathic feelings, but they also influenced participants’ donations to a homeless shelter. These findings reveal the remarkable breadth of prosocial conformity.

Interesting, indeed. Helping people makes others want to do good as well: initially because they want praise, too, and ultimately because they learn to actually like the feeling of helping people whether they receive praise or not. Kind of like the plot of every Disney movie ever. 

As with most things human, we begin our journey from a place of self-service, and we arrive having become a member of a broader community. We learn to do it for the sake of doing it, to “pass it on” just because that’s the right thing to do. Before we know it, we’re so far out of our comfort zone, we can’t even recall each and every one of our good deeds. Random acts of kindness, often unseen or overlooked, parent the next round of random acts of kindness. And on and on. The size of the pie is unlimited: you and I are baking this pie.

An empathetic person can recognize that giving resources to another person means that he or she is okay with having less. In this way, we become even more generous and derive greater fulfillment from life, because empathetic people find success and happiness in helping others succeed. Perhaps one person can’t save the world by themselves, but that one person can most certainly be the beginning of real change. 

Reason #5 to Give The Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump: Some Jerkoff Probably Already Yelled at Them This Morning 

And isn’t it kind of inspiring that you can be the one to set the world straight? 

Reason #6 to Give The Clerk at the DMV a Fist Bump: Positive Energy Becomes Easier to Exhibit Than Negative Energy

Positive thinking reduces anxiety and stress, boosts our immune response, and makes us more buoyant. Our positive actions, in turn, bring joy and good health to ourselves and our web of effect. (And from Barbara Frederickson’s study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: When we see the world through a positive lens, we are more successful; when we see the world through a negative lens, there is less opportunity available to us.) 

More fun, though, is that it becomes less difficult over time to be a good person. Exercising the empathetic muscles ultimately leads to permanent, instinctive empathy. There’s less necessity to think and unthink and rethink the actions of a natural habit, right? We humans tend to intuitively lean towards the side of laziness and taking the easy way out, so it’s hard initially to redirect the course of our actions or reasoning, and then it’s still hard, and then it’s STILL hard, and then it’s not hard at all. This isn’t that you sit on your bum, think happy thoughts, and wish for a sailboat to manifest itself in your driveway, and somehow by the grace of the law of attraction, there she blows! This is tangible, that both positive energy and negative energy get easier with practice, and the choice is ours which one we elect to exhibit. 

Forget the guy at the DMV for a second, though, and consider your postwoman, fighting through a hot day; the 57-year old grocery store manager who thought he was going to be at least one notch up on the hierarchy by this time in his life; or that guy who was blowing leaves off your front stoop yesterday afternoon. Your restaurant server. The kid working the tollbooth. That security lady who checks your purse for AR-15s before you enter the baseball stadium. 

These aren’t nightmare jobs, but they sure aren’t dream jobs, and since about 90% of us have one of these jobs, can’t we all just kind of settle in and fight through this together? If your server forgets your drink refill or isn’t particularly cheery or rolls his eyes when you tell him your salmon is dry and overcooked, fine, tip less, but we don’t have to be a prick about it, do we? Take a second, breathe, and consider the ramifications of lending just one shot of grace and amity to the world. A smile. Words of approbation. A generally more pleasant disposition. 

Or maybe a fist bump.

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Our mission at Practice Empathy™ is to spread kindness and compassion. If you're an asshole, then we likely wouldn't get along. But if you're not an asshole, and you want to show your friends and family and various random passersby that you're both thoughtful and considerate (and have impeccable fashion sense), have a look around our site to see what we have to offer. 

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