From Chapter 8, “Kindness: The Art of Paying it Forward” in Ingredients of Outliers
Unless you’ve spent part of your life in the Deep South, you may not be acquainted with the word lagniappe (lan-yap). It describes a long-standing French-Creole tradition in southern Louisiana and parts of neighboring states. It’s defined as a) a small gift given by a merchant to a customer with the customer’s purchase; b) an extra or unexpected gift or benefit. It’s often used to signify a small kindness or going the extra mile.
In his book Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, Mark Twain wrote: “We picked up one excellent word — a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — ‘lagniappe.’ We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. . . . It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.”
I first heard about it from a mentor of mine, Naomi Rhode, one of America’s finest public speakers and a past president of both the National Speakers Association and the Global Speakers Federation. In her book My Father’s Hand, Naomi relates a story she often heard as a child from her father, a story I believe illustrates a unique way of showing kindness to others.
“My dad was a giant of a man,” she writes. “His life philosophies, his character, his genuine zest for life, his charisma, his speaking excellence, his love for family, his wisdom, his storytelling (‘to cement life’s teachable moments,’ he’d say), and his faith in God were the foundational elements of my childhood.
“Having lived through the ‘Great Depression’ in our country (about which he was always willing to share stories), he had a true appreciation of thrift. But far beyond thrift was a philosophy of giving. He’d often tell the story of the shopkeeper during the Great Depression:
“This shopkeeper was different than all the other shopkeepers in town. When you came into his shop to buy five pounds of coffee beans, he would take his marvelous scale and put a five-pound weight on one side and the empty container on the other. Then he would ceremoniously put the scoop into the bag of freshly roasted coffee beans, scooping and scooping until the once empty container was perfectly balanced with the five-pound weight.
The shopkeeper would then pause — and ‘twinkle,’ and dip the scoop into the bag of beans one more time. With a smile, he would empty that extra scoop of coffee beans on top of what he had so carefully measured, overflowing the container and tipping the scales in favor of you, the customer.
As he smiled and ‘twinkled,’ he would say ‘Lagniappe,’ which in French Creole means: ‘every bit you paid for, and then just a little bit extra.’ It was obviously that ‘little bit extra’ which had created, built and successfully retained the business other shops lost during that difficult time in our nation’s history.”
“In telling that story, my dad was extremely convincing! He assured me I would be happy, successful, and even significant in life’s journey if I regularly gave ‘every bit I was paid for, and then a little bit extra’—in my personal life, in my business life, with friends, and with family.”
At the end of her dad’s story, Naomi added these words: “What a wonderful model for all of us to follow in our lives: May each of us be a Lagniappe person, giving every bit we’ve been paid for, and just a little bit extra!”
The Ripple Effect
In New Orleans, among other places, the lagniappe tradition continues to flourish. For example, there are the Lagniappe Academies and Lagniappe Presbyterian Church. It’s also the name of the magazine which has been published by the Junior League of New Orleans since 1930. In a recent issue of Lagniappe, editor Caitlin Brewster wrote about “following the theme of ‘the ripple effect,’ knowing that every little thing we ‘Leaguers’ do impacts someone or something else—no matter how big or how small.”
She goes on to describe what happens when a pebble is tossed into a lake or other body of calm water: “Although the pebble is small, the effect is large. From that tiny plop, ripples begin to spread out in all directions. And it never ceases to amaze me just how far they can extend.”
What a beautiful description of kindness. That’s one of the great things about it—there’s never a way to measure its effects. It can be something as simple as giving a dollar to that homeless man at the freeway exit, and perhaps go no further, or it can touch countless lives as it passes from one hand to the next. It also has a dual benefit, impacting both the one who bestows it and the one who receives it.