Since young I have never bought packets from these tissue peddlers. Whenever we were out for a meal at a hawker centre, my parents would always turn them away – making no eye contact and avoiding any conversation – and we did the same when we passed them on the streets. On the contrary there was no hesitation when a volunteer approached with a tin can, which would prompt my mother to dig her coin purse in exchange for a little sticker.
But I never understood why. Perhaps we never needed the tissue packets, though in retrospect one dollar was such a small sum for a good deed. A “good deed”, because oftentimes these sellers are characterised as destitute and “in need” (and elderly), with assumptions that they have fallen on hard times, have been let down by their offspring, or are denied state assistance. Little surprise that they – together with those who toil as cleaners and those who labour in neighbourhoods with cartloads of cardboards – have featured in political narratives rallying against a heartless government which supposedly does little for the disenfranchised.
I asked my friends about this, and the unscientific aggregation of these anecdotes revealed a 50-50 split in the willingness to purchase. These were “karma tissues”, one said, for the aforementioned reasons. For others it was not unlike a regular business transaction, and they were cautious about peddlers who were too “pushy” or appeared “suspicious”. On the other hand, those who were hesitant to pay a dollar were not only apprehensive about the authenticity of these peddlers – some even citing syndicates – but concerned about the utility of their contributions. “That dollar will not solve their underlying problems”, one elaborated.
Perhaps herein lies the power (and diversity) of perception. Whether we purchase these tissue packets depends, it seems: first, how we perceive the peddler (inferring intent through disposition and actions); and second, how we perceive the efficacy of our contribution (if that dollar makes a tangible difference in the life of that peddler, or if policy changes are in order).
Yet the trouble with these perceptions could be that of generalisation, wherein assumptions are made about the needs of these individuals. It is difficult to ascertain the background and motivation of a peddler, and in that split moment before a possible transaction we revert to a perception which – we believe – has served us well. I am not sure if these musings will mark a change in my future interactions, though I will certainly pause, and ponder a little more.