It was partly the words he used. "Hey dude," he'd say, instead of, "Good morning sir!" as the rest of us might say. He joked with them. Asked every single one of them how their day was going. Appreciated their choice of dessert ("Keeping it simple with a cookie. Solid, man." Or, "Cherry pie, nice. Lemme find you a fat piece."). He was casual with them but still, wasn't that just another way of being nice?
In any case, "You're so good at putting people at ease," I told him during a lull in the line. "I really admire that."
"Oh, well, I've been on the other side of the line at times in my life so I know it could just as easily be me where they are."
I realized then that what was different was that he wasn't just treating the patrons with friendliness - and every single other volunteer there was being very friendly - he was treating them as a peer.
I felt a little ashamed as I suddenly felt aware of the subtle way in which most of us subconsciously indicated a barrier between us and them (one that, perhaps, feels protective). I wondered, should I try to mirror what he did? But he treated them as a peer because he felt like he was one. Most of the volunteers have not been as impoverished as our patrons have. So what is the most dignified and compassionate role to take when interacting together? If we don't intuitively feel like peers, should we "fake it til we make it"? Or is it a matter of a shift in perspective that we need? One of humility? Or maybe just one of remembering that we are peers through the shared humanity, mortality and capacity for suffering of all of us?
I suspect it's a bit of all of the above. I know I will struggle for a few weeks to implement what I feel I learned from the guy I worked with yesterday. But it's important to me to do so, in a way that feels authentic to who I am. I'm grateful for lessons in compassion.