We’ve all heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I take it to mean that we should not get ourselves into a tizzy over every little problem that arises in our lives. And it is generally good advice. However, there are areas of life in which it’s beneficial to worry about the little things.
A popular notion in law enforcement is the “broken window theory.” This theory asserts that small instances of law-breaking or disorder, such as a single broken windowpane in a building, encourage more lawlessness. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani used the broken window theory as the cornerstone of his law and order policy, and the results were a steep decline in crime along with an improvement in the quality of life in public spaces.
Although there is some controversy over whether Giuliani’s emphasis on cleaning up the city and enforcing the law on minor issues was responsible for the drop in crime, there were some studies that confirmed the connection between order and crime prevention.
And it makes intuitive sense to me. As a former teacher, I know that if I acted swiftly to quell minor disruptions in my classroom, negative behavior would be less likely to escalate. The expression “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile” certainly holds true with people’s behavior.
There is also the matter of incremental increases in bad behavior. A small white lie, cheating in a game, taking something small or insignificant that doesn’t belong to you – all these behaviors can make a person feel more comfortable committing more serious offenses over time.
My parents were scrupulously honest. They would never accept too much change back from a cashier, use an item and then return it to the store, fudge on their taxes, or – heaven forbid – steal something outright. Once my mother and a few of us kids were shopping at a department store, and my mother got distracted. She walked out into the parking lot with some clothing draped over her arm that she had forgotten she was carrying. Of course she marched right back into the store with the merchandise and gave it to an incredulous store clerk. I learned at an early age that there is no such thing as a small offense.
By the same token, there is no such thing as too small a gesture. All the smiles, polite “please”s and “thank you”s, holding open of doors, and friendly “hello”s we bestow on others can have a profound effect on the people around us. As the holidays approach and the pressures mount to get our holiday errands done, there is no greater gift you can give someone than to be gracious and friendly in your day-to-day dealings.
If we focus on the positive “small stuff” in life, we won’t have to “sweat” the bad so much.