Was That Nice?

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I must see the cared-for as he is

and as he might be –

as he envisions his best self –

in order to confirm him.

-Nel Noddings


ou would think that niceness and kindness would go together like French fries and catsup. In fact, you might even think they are the same thing. But could it be that niceness and kindness are entirely different psychological constructs, generated from different portions of our brains? If so, would it be helpful to us if we knew this to be true? In my clinical experience, the answer to both those questions is a full-throated “Yes.” But here’s another question: If we grant me my position that there is a fundamental difference between being nice and being kind, then where does caring enter into the picture?

I believe very strongly that sorting through these types of existential fine tunings can elevate a life into both a more elegant and a more grounded sense of the self. It is therefore my goal in writing this article to offer you two little things: a psychological/philosophical thought nugget that can reconnect you with the fact that humans can do the most amazing thing imaginable – think! And, some food for that thought about a set of precious human activities that can help deepen your knowledge of yourself, your strengths and your areas of growth.

Terms defined

Nice behavior occurs when culturally determined guidelines are followed. Much more synonymous with polite than with kind, niceness indicates that you are acting in ways that uphold well-founded social mores. People who are nice follow the ordinary rules of social interaction – they pick up after their dog, participate willingly in zipper freeway merging or take soup to an ill neighbor. In doing so, they contribute mightily to making a lovely world for all of us to enjoy. There is rarely a downside to being nice. True, it can get a little cloying, it can reflect a pathological level of selflessness and it can exert pressure to reciprocate, but being nice usually just eases interpersonal interactions. Nice behavior originates in those parts of our brains that compliantly learn rules, that remember that good behaviors lead to more pleasant feelings and that strategize to enhance our personal view of ourselves. In some ways we can think of niceness as the lowest acceptable level of behavior that the world can hold us to.

Kindness, on the other hand, is created when we provide someone with helping behavior custom-made for just them. So, for example, you soundlessly breathe deeply and remind yourself to relax as a friend struggles to complete a sentence over a speech impediment. You take a friend a beautiful bunch of fresh asparagus rather than a carb-heavy casserole when she is recovering from heart surgery. You edit yourself when tempted to tease someone about something you suspect he is feeing fragile about. All of these examples keep the people to be assisted within the context of their situation and stipulate that everyone has the right to determine for themselves what they value. Kindness is an inner-directed process as opposed to an externally driven, rule-based compliance. It originates in those creative parts of the brain that control all the gifts needed to generate novel and empathic gestures of friendship. Kind people demonstrate an advanced form of an empathic arousal. Like empathy, it can sometimes be in error as the kind person tried, and failed, to read the situation correctly. But, as kindness is more immediately connected to the specific person it is targeting, it would have a greater chance of being effective than niceness. Plus, even when someone swings and misses in terms of trying to be kind to us, it is – as they say – the thought that counts (at least for something).

Finally, to be caring is to have the ability to initiate and sustain both kind and nice behaviors. If you come upon a person when you are walking home in the rain and they appear intoxicated and in danger, you can stop and check on them (nice), then discuss with them what would be the most beneficial to them (kind) and then follow through with being helpful (caring) even if that means turning around and walking them all the way to the bus stop five blocks back.

We all differ in our inherent tendencies to be nice, kind and generous, meaning we will all differ in how frequently we naturally implement these human interactions. If we want to live a coherent life, it behooves us to acquaint ourselves with these constructs, assess the levels at which we are currently enacting them and perhaps choose to alter our future behavior accordingly.

One layer deeper

Just for fun, let’s look into this difference one layer deeper. What if niceness and kindness are such different concepts as to be able to function completely independently within us? If this is indeed the case, we can graph the levels of each construct on an axis perpendicular to the other. That, of course, is an orthogonal relationship, which creates four quadrants. Let’s put kindness on the vertical axis running from high levels of kindness at the top to low levels at the bottom, and niceness running left to right with high levels of niceness on the extreme right.

• Low kindness/low niceness: The bottom left-hand quadrant will represent people who are neither kind nor nice. We call these people mean spirited. We may believe that these folks are to be disliked in that their interpersonal stinginess scatters pain out to the people around them. But they are truly to be pitied as they are clearly not only not triumphing in their social life, they are also not harvesting any of the joy to be had in distributing good will.

• High kindness/low niceness: The upper left quadrant captures the image of people who may be experienced as impolite but extremely thoughtful. This confusing sort of person might answer their phone with a gruff and uninviting “WHAT?” but then instantly drop everything and offer to drive you to the airport. If you have fairly thick skin and if you have many other people in your life who are nice to you, people in this quadrant can be entertainingly endearing. They can hurt your feelings rather often and precipitate some social cringes, but you can trust them to be there for you in pretty solid ways. I tend to like these folks.

• Low kindness/high niceness: The lower right quadrant of people tend to be extremely polite but rarely bestir themselves to come up with anything special to do for you. They can be very pleasant to be around – we might call them well housebroken – but they are extremely hard to feel close to. They never make us feel chosen or special in any way. When we are around a person who can only be nice, the relationship can take on a rather generic feeling. And when we feel interchangeable in relationship we don’t feel very safe. No depth can form in a nice-only relationship. I’m not too interested in spending much time with these folks.

• High kindness/high niceness: Bonanza. These folks are wonderful to have in your life (if they have enough healthy narcissism to take care of themselves in addition to taking care of everyone around them.) They are sweethearts and they are trustworthy because they routinely signal their caring for us with thoughtful and custom-made acts designed to meet a specific need of ours right when we need it. Yes, their behavior toward us does pressure us to raise our game to their level, but who wouldn’t consider that more than a fair trade? Niceness helps us not get annoyed by the other person and kindness proves that there is depth there, so I would venture to guess that true intimacy is only possible between two people who can be both nice and kind.

How does the construct of caring fit into this orthogonal model? It’s a matter of our being reliably nice and kind. Most of us can be reliably nice because most of us are so well trained to be polite that it takes very little energy or thought to do so. The same cannot be said for our level of kindness. We clearly cannot engage in every act of kindness available to us. Oftentimes we have to let an act slide by due to lack of resources or competing priorities. But sometimes we sidestep a chance to be caring because we simply don’t want to be considerate right now to this person in these circumstances. That’s okay, too. But we have to decide if we want to be a generous person or not. It’s hard to be kind. It takes a lot of thought and energy. We do the work of it because we believe that it’s the only decent way to live. If morality requires an endless series of choices rather than a saintly attitude, then caring reflects a moral decision to monitor our choices so that the frequency of enacting kindness hits a mark that reflects who we want to be. A mathematical way to put it is this – those who seek to be generous continue to move their behavior as far out and up as possible in the upper-right-hand quadrant where high levels of both nice and kind behaviors exist.

Mean people suck

There are two distinct ways people can be mean – they can refuse to participate in interpersonal commerce in regard to being generously nice and kind, or they can counterfeit these behaviors to manipulate and control others. Let’s look at how each of these is problematic.

Lack of niceness: It’s always interesting to me when a person walks through a door, aware that another person is right behind them, and yet makes no effort to hold the door open for even a second. People who litter confuse me. And don’t get me started on leaf blower etiquette. But, is the absence of niceness rudeness? The absence of niceness reflects the inner workings of someone who believes that they don’t need to follow all the rules. If social rules are in place mainly to prevent thoughtlessness from affecting others, ignoring these rules tells me that you do not care if your behavior negatively affects me. At what level does this type of behavior become rude? I would say that frequency, intentions and results all come into play here. If a rule-breaking behavior happens too often and the results are clearly quite disturbing to others, then we have to explore the intentions of the “perp.” If their uppance doesn’t come – meaning that the only curb on their behavior is self-determined – these folks can be said to be mean if they choose not to alter their behavior in the face of the knowledge that it is causing distress. So, after you have clearly explained to your next door neighbor that their daily urban campfire is filling your house and yard with unpleasant wood smoke, their continuing pyromania is rude. And they are mean.

Lack of kindness: I have written elsewhere about the importance of empathy, stipulation, and being chosen in terms of how these three external gifts both energize and soothe us. It is crucial to note that all three are reflections of the kindness of others. In addition to these three types of cheerleading, other acts of kindness reflect an investment in us that glues us firmly into stabilizing interpersonal spaces.

What happens when others around us deny us this glue? Is the absence of kindness unkind?

It’s true that limited kindness could be an example of the Golden Rule in that people who don’t like to be helped might believe that others don’t like offers of assistance either. (Aside: This is a good example of why the idea that the ultimate good behavior means treating someone else the way you would like to be treated is fraught. It assumes that what works to make you happy will make everyone else in the world happy. A little solipsistic I believe. I happen to like harsh, direct feedback from people. I doubt if all people do, so it would not be nice to project this peculiarity of mine on everyone around me. The Platinum Rule – do unto others as they would like you to do unto them. This version doesn’t work existentially either because no one truly thrives when the social world caters to them. With no challenges comes no growth. The Feminist/Existential Rule: Do unto others what you decide together in each instance would make sense to do to advance them on their route toward flourishing. Now we’re talking!)

 

Fiction

Magnificent Obsession

- Lloyd C. Douglas

Nonfiction

Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

- Nel Noddings

Good and Evil

- Martin Buber

Women and Evil

- Nel Noddings

The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil

- Erich Fromm

 

It’s also true that limited kindness can reflect a limited attention span. If kindness requires a custom-made solution to a problem of another person, finding that solution will probably involve sustained thought.

Finally, a lack of kindness can reflect a lack of creativity. People who give generic gifts are not necessarily intending to be unkind, they may simply be unimaginative. People who refuse to even give generic gifts are starting to move toward meanness.

Having said all that, my biased belief is that lack of kindness is, at the very least, stingy, and that routine interpersonal stinginess is unkind. If someone is capable of looking up from their (albeit appropriate) self-absorption from time to time to see what we’re about, how can that person not stumble across kindnesses they can do for us?

It’s important to note here that experiencing too much unkindness in important relationships can lead to depression because it feels like an undoing. You see me and what I’m about but you’re not interested in participating in my life in any profound way. If you are in a relationship like this, please pay that fact a great deal of attention. It would also be wise to consult with trustworthy others or a professional healer to assess the viability of the relationship.

Lack of caring: As I described above, when folks are simply not generous, their choice to be miserly relative to you will prevent a relationship from growing. If their stinginess primarily shows up in lack of niceness, we can tolerate a bit of that if we are personally resilient. If their stinginess primarily shows up in lack of kindness, we can tolerate that a bit if they aren’t too close to us and we have others in our lives who are kind. If they are enacting neither niceness nor kindness, we have to wonder – why are we keeping them in our lives? If you are going to continue to relate to folks who are absolutely uncaring, you need to do so with the clear understanding that you are not in a relationship with these folks, you are in a donationship. As always, if you are clearly choosing it, this choice is a fine one to make. If they have something to offer you other than generosity of spirit (a challenging game of golf perhaps), if they are temporarily depleted (just finishing studying for the bar exam for the second time) or have been seriously wounded by life (you wish to be a lay therapist for someone you know), just remember to keep an eye on how the donationship is affecting both of you. If you are getting too depleted, it is absolutely crucial that you work to set tighter limits. If they are getting too sloppy, see the section below on toxic generosity.

Since this article is all about parsing words, let me take a moment to discuss what I see as the difference between mean and cruel. A mean person would be someone who fails to do nice and kind things even though they are aware of what those things would be and what they would mean to someone else. In other words, a mean person is someone who doesn’t seem to mind being impolite and unkind. A cruel person goes out of their way to routinely deny others those acts of kindness and derives enjoyment when doing so.

And this brings us to our next subject in the mean-people-suck category – individuals who are malevolent.

Malevolence: People on the road toward being sociopaths can use interpersonal favors to trick others into thinking that a relationship is more than it actually is. You don’t have to be a cynic to understand that not all people who seem generous are generous. When gestures of friendliness are coming your way, I recommend doing two things. First, double check within yourself to ensure that you feel worthy of the goodwill you are receiving. If you warble in your sense of entitlement, you will, oddly, be more at risk for misperceiving the intentions of the giver because with entitlement comes greater perspective that can help you assess the motives of others. Second, try to assess the motive of the giver. Please remember that holding others accountable is not a sign of disrespect but is actually an indication that you trust them to be willing to be judged. The last three books listed in the nonfiction section of the FAWBOT box address these complex psychological issues.

If your spidey sense is unreliable relative to distinguishing true generosity from manipulative generosity, learn to consult with others or learn how to test relationships in order to build trust.

At the extreme end of this road are con artists who knowingly prey on guileless folks who have resources to plunder, and batterers who use overt offerings of niceness and faux apologies to “repair” a damaged relationship in order to keep it going. These folks are professionals and can fool even the most careful among us. If you get caught in their web, forgive yourself, get help and try to move on.

It is true – mean people suck.

Toxic generosity

This may seem like an oxymoronic section but there is an additional way that both niceness and kindness can be surprisingly disagreeable.

Because both are interpersonal acts, they each carry a load of information about what the other thinks of us. Too much of either or both can send us the message that we can’t be trusted to do for ourself (for example when a husband insists on handling all the finances); we are too stupid to do for ourself (as when a parent does any part of a child’s homework); or we can’t make it without you (e.g. when a wife packs her husband’s suitcase for every trip). What is pernicious about these types of “favors” is that they are pernicious. They start to add up over time and negatively influence our opinion of ourselves. Because each incident taken individually appears to be either nice or kind, it can be hard to set a limit on this behavior without seeming silly, petty and ungrateful.

And, finally, a huge show of generosity can show a staggering lack of empathy, which suggests someone important to us simply hasn’t been paying attention. Here’s a very sad example:

A spry widow in her 70s owned a primitive cabin in northern Michigan where she flourished using a wood burning stove, a privy and a kerosene lamp. One fall, without notice, one of her sons refurbished her cabin retreat with indoor plumbing and electricity and a brand new range. Who wouldn’t react to hearing about this act of the son without saying, “Isn’t that nice?! What a kind young man!!” But she was devastated by this “act of kindness,” for her boy had had no idea of why this way of life had continued to be so meaningful to her. She was a master of this elemental domain and he had ill-advisedly stolen that potency from her. What a perfect and poignant example of what I would call narcissistic kindness.

(Aside: Let me take a moment here to revisit the concept of narcissism because I have no beef with this noun. I believe healthy narcissism to be a necessary part of any powerful human. It is, from an existential point of view, merely the act of creating the unique interpersonal space needed to enact each particular life. Seeking an education, interviewing for a job, and singing a solo at church are all examples of healthy narcissism. The problem with this human activity occurs, obviously, when the narcissistic act is not counterbalanced with empathy, which is that human skill that alerts us when we are in danger of bumping into someone else’s territory as we work to expand ours. So narcissistic kindness is kindness absent empathy, which, if your think about it, is impossible. In other words, an act of kindness minus empathy equals zero.)

When you’re on the receiving end of generosity, it is wise to take a moment to assess frequency, intentions, degree of intimacy, presence of empathy and so on in order to detect the possibility of unhelpful helping. When you are on the giving end of generosity, it is also wise to check on the frequency, intentions, degree of intimacy, presence of empathy and so on. If you find yourself offering too many times to help in the kitchen when you’re a guest in someone’s house; insisting too stridently to pick up the tab at lunch with friends; or – and this is one of my favorites – sending a thank-you note in response to a thank-you note, you may be spun up into a narcissistic niceness state. We can all land here sometimes when we let our image management run too long on automatic pilot. It takes some self-awareness to ensure that a wish to be generous doesn’t become cloying or tedious or disrespectful of others.

So what?

Does it help to make the distinction among these three constructs? Who cares if we interchange words willy-nilly?

Too often we flog ourselves about the way we are behaving out in the world with vague and shaming calls to “shape up.” I don’t know about you, but I find it much easier to improve my comportment when I am extremely clear on what needs to change and why. If we bundle niceness, kindness and caring together in a tangle it can be harder to assess and monitor them.

Conversing is always a good example to use for unpacking interpersonal behaviors. If we feel we have been impolite too often out in the world with our tendency to monopolize conversations, we can remind ourselves that it’s not NICE to do so. It is really rather straightforward to be a little nicer – especially if our “why” is clear in our mind. For niceness, the “why” can often boil down to “why not?” It seems to me that being nice takes so little effort and has such a positive effect on the world around us, who wouldn’t want to try to optimize their niceness? If, on the other hand, we realize that we tend to be unkind in conversation with consistent demonstrations of lack of interest in another, we can give that a good think. While it is much more difficult to up your level of kindness than it is to up your politeness, you can sincerely ponder why you don’t seem to value learning about other people and what they think. Can you see how it’s easier to separate these two constructs in order to assess and improve our behavior in one or the other or both? And when we are better at doing them, we will be more likely to remember to do them. When we reach that point, of course, we have increased our level of caring.

Once disentangled, it can be clearer that these concepts involve vastly different types of behaviors. How we alter kindness, niceness and generosity will all involve different strategies.

Niceness too low: This is a behavioral problem suggesting that you have been poorly trained in the niceties of human interactions. This is very often true for people who were subjected to parents of the mindlessly-bringing-up-baby philosophy. The resultant rough edges of people with this type of upbringing are not their fault. Put another way, having good manners reflects a life with some degree of sophistication which can vary greatly by upbringing.

If we want to titrate our level of niceness, we have to first learn the rules. This is done by upping our social sophistication which is just being more socially savvy. Watching, asking, listening, reading are all ways to gain this interpersonal insight. Each culture will vary on what types of behavior it prefers. Once we have a sense of what to do, we watch how carefully we play by the rules, how alert we are to the comfort of others around us and how skilled we are at holding our temper. Personally, I want to always be vigilant about being nice because it is such an easy way to think globally and act locally. I can habituate to sharing the positive thoughts I have about the folks who cross my path on a given day. I can train myself to widen my perspective to catch opportunities to ease someone’s afternoon. I can more routinely monitor my behavior to ensure that any negativity or self-absorption is kept to a minimum. I also watch that my tone of voice and non-verbals align with the intended nice behavior, otherwise I will be wasting everyone’s time with a transparently ineffective gesture. I also have to guard against expecting the cosmos to be delighted with my gestures. The world will not tend to reward you when you are being nice. Here’s a favorite example: I like to drive fast, so I almost always drive in the fast lane. I try very hard to leave lots of space between me and the car in front of me on the freeway. What that means is that there will be a constant influx of cars from the next lane over into the space I have left. I cannot grouse about this without undoing the thoughtful driving gesture I wish to make. Make sense?

If you suspect that your level of niceness is a tad low, it is wise to solicit input from others. Hold a simple conversation with members of your social world about what behaviors you can increase or eliminate to make them feel less irritated and more attended to and comfortable. And, if someone is nagging you, chances are you are being routinely impolite. Why would you want to continue to do that? If it doesn’t bother you to leave the break room a mess for the cleaning staff to deal with but it bothers your coworkers, how hard can it be for you to accommodate them around this?

A final suggestion – if you want to be nicer, it can help if you remember to acknowledge within yourself your acts of niceness even though your world won’t necessarily do so. Tucking yourself into bed at night with a mental hug for being a nice person will reinforce the polite behavior as well as help you get a good night’s sleep. Sweet dreams are made of this.

If you either decide that you have appropriate levels of niceness or have been able to increase your level of niceness, you then need to think about your kindness levels. With only niceness being enacted, your life is going to have that generic quality – there will be no idiosyncratic peak emotional connections with others. And if you mistakenly think you are a kind person because you are regularly nice, you will remain unaware that people around you are going to be hurt by your lack of kindness. All this is to say, if your kind behavior level is low you are unattached. So we need to look at how to assess and increase our level of attachment to others.

Kindness too low: This is an empathy problem. Kind people routinely imagine the inner world of those around them. Unkind people do not. Remember the first step of empathy is bracketing yourself back in order to enter the world of the other. If you forget to do this or don’t know how to do this or do not want to do this, you will not be able to be kind. Kind people enjoy contributing to the quality of life of others. Unkind people do not. If it is not interesting to you to participate in the emotional lives of others around you, it is best if you know this about yourself.

Before you commit to increasing your ability to enact kindness then, you have to answer a few questions about yourself to yourself. Do I have enough self to spend a little of it on others? Does this virtue even appeal to me? And, ethically you have to give your position on this issue a think because if you decide that you are not interested in being kind, you will need to provide others with a clear understanding of your stand – an informed consent, if you will. There is nothing wrong about this stance – if you are truly comfortable being unattached, feel free to choose to be so. Just, please, be extra careful that people around you are aware of your decision.

If, on the other hand, you want to be a kinder person, you will have to deepen your understanding of how to do so.

Because kindness is a much larger interpersonal investment than is niceness, before we choose to improve our implementation of kindness, we need to clarify our reasons for doing so with respect to a specific individual. Kindness, as opposed to niceness, requires the giver to move through many of the steps of empathy in order to assess a need, then take the time to design a custom-made interaction and then implement that plan. Why would we go to all this trouble?

We may feel that we owe the other person for their previous acts of kindness toward us. If this is your only reason, it would make sense to evaluate how that debt arose. How much of our social energy do we want to dedicate to this other who may be soliciting a greater level of intimacy from us than we desire? It may seem unkind to nip such beguilement in the bud, but like any request for intimacy, we are kinder to others when we set them straight on how much we are prepared to give them. They are then free to make the choice to put their social energy into someone else who is eager to reciprocate. This is very hard to do if you believe that social rejection is not nice. If you can think of it as setting a person free from wasting their precious kindness on you, it can be seen as very nice (as long as it’s not ghosting). It’s still hard to do.

But if you assess a relationship and decide it is important to you (meaning you want to attach to this person), then it is incumbent on you to also assess the kindness balance in that relationship. If you only take, what can be said about you? Do you rarely focus on others; lack social energy; put no effort into fostering your imagination; lack experience with the joy of being kind or the fear that one act of kindness will lead to ever escalating demands for more? Each of these causes requires a different solution.

If you recognize that you rarely focus on others but do want to be kind, it’s time for some mindfulness and empathy training motivated by the mantra “I want to be more kind.” All the articles in the Relationship Skills section of the website will be of assistance to you in this endeavor. A word of warning here though: If you think of the Relationship Skills section as a ladder that can take you up to the next level of intimacy with someone important to you, please remember that, like a ladder, each rung may be manageable, but you only reach the top with sustained effort and some significant degree of courage. Please prepare yourself to engage in this process with the necessary grit.

If you lack social energy, it’s time to do an energy assessment. For me, all too often my thoughts of enacting kindness get bookmarked but lost to time spent in busyness. It’s sobering to acknowledge that you have said “yes” to so many things that you can no longer be a kind person. Think about how you are employing your daily energy allotment. If there is simply no energy left for kindness, forgive your temporary less-than-kind status. Self-care needs to kick in here with a reminder that you need not create external reasons to rest when you find yourself spent. You just need to rest. If there is a way to collect more energy for acts of kindness, do so. In the near future, of course, watch those “yeses.” Saying “no” in boundary situations can be extremely difficult for many people. The following quote from philosopher Nel Noddings can be helpful:

Caring requires me to respond to the initial impulse with an act of commitment: I commit myself either to overt action on behalf of the cared-for (I pick up my crying infant) or I commit myself to thinking about what I might do.

When I can remember that thinking is a valid response to a perceived need in another, it buys me time to do a bit of an assessment as to whether or not I’ve got the reserve necessary to act at this time. If not, I try to then remember to use the tender-hearted phrase “I wish I could…” as I set a limit with my friend.

If your lack of kindness is due to lack of imagination, set aside an afternoon to Google “how to increase your imagination.”

If your lack of kindness is due to, ironically, too great an imagination, try to keep the KISS acronym in mind. A creative mind can feel plague-ridden with too many, too elaborate ideas about acts of kindness. How sad when nothing caring happens due to over-thinking. How much better to implement a simpler version if need be.

If you are unfamiliar with the profound joy to be had when we design and implement a significant act of kindness, you have probably never learned to harvest positive feelings. This is a common condition in many men who have been trained to be stoic. If this has reached a clinical level of interpersonal disconnect, it usually takes some effective therapy to undo the damage this type of early childhood training does to a person. Once you can feel a full range of feelings, you can learn to recognize and harvest the joy that being kind precipitates in you.

Finally, if you fear that being kind will turn your friends into monsters with insatiable appetites for your kind behavior, I have two suggestions. First, acts of kindness tend to be so interpersonally nourishing that most people don’t need as much kindness as one would think. There is usually such a strong emotional response to receiving an act of kindness that it gets encoded very clearly into our memory where it can reside for some time to reassure us that we matter. It may be in a neglected relationship that a slight increase in kind acts is necessary to kick start the trust-building process, but this higher demand rarely lasts long. And, second, if anyone gets too dependent on you for any reason, their behavior suggests that they need a little therapy. Your kindness will then extend to setting limits with them and encouraging them to recognize that their neediness is something they can repair.

Three more quick tips on kindness: Can you put a price tag on an act of kindness? This is a tricky one. While it’s true that being generous with someone does incur an interpersonal debt because the human brain automatically keeps track of social equity, is a tit-for-tat gesture actually kindness? I think only you can answer that within yourself. If you are doing something for someone because they matter to you, you will probably get some kindness back from them in the future, but if that reciprocity isn’t your motivating factor, your heart is probably pure. If you are hedging your bets that you’ll need something from them in the future by doing for them now, that may be a little less of a kindness.

Avoid knee-jerk acts of kindness. Kindness is filling a person’s specific need, which can include both doing something for them and not doing something for them. The not-doing-something-for-someone kindnesses can be much harder to do. So beware of empathic failure when acting quickly to be “kind.” It may be that you need to say to a good friend: If I had known you were coming I wouldn't have baked you a cake because I know you are having blood sugar concerns.

Lead with your strengths: Just because someone you know and like sends you cards on Arbor Day or brings you homemade cherry preserves from cherries from their tree doesn’t mean you need to hit a Hallmark store or start planting an orchard. If you are better at being nice by listening carefully when you can share small snippets of your limited time or prefer kindnesses to be more along the lines of clever pranks, that’s all good. A friend of mine with absolutely no social time replenishes our relationship with one, hour-long brilliant conversation a year. Her vocabulary alone is worth all the cherry preserves I could make!

Short end of the stick

What do you do if you are in a relationship with someone who needs to beef up his or her niceness or kindness or, in other words, their caring? Sometimes all it takes is a gentle reminder that the relationship has gotten out of balance. Sensitive folks tend to not want to be hurtful, so they will adjust their behavior with just that nudge. Other times a longer conversation is needed. It has been my experience that when this is the case, the timing and process and content of that conversation all need to be carefully considered. I have gathered the content here for you in this article, which can allow you to help the other person see that you are asking for deeper attachment from them rather than whining about a specific behavior that they should or shouldn’t do. The timing and process issues are addressed here and here. Finally, it can often be the case that professional help is needed to bolster the credibility of the request.

A caring response to generosity

Does it bother you a little when you take the time to let someone turn left in front of you and they do so without acknowledging you at all? It does me. It feels like someone has stolen the frosting off my piece of cake. When I see an opportunity to be nice or kind I picture two things happening: a warm feeling of coherence within due to my choice to act in a caring manner and a very agreeable – if brief – I-Thou connection with someone as they make eye contact with me in acknowledgement of my presence in their life. I am happy to engage in the generous behavior and will obviously survive without the momentary connection, but I will admit I greatly prefer my cake with frosting.

So, we could make the case that it is generous to react to acts of generosity with generosity whenever possible. At a minimum, unless you are so depleted that you cannot even lift your head (and this happens), take a fleeting moment to recognize the giver with at least a glance. At the maximum, give a robust thank-you, which includes a concrete and detailed description of what it was like for you to receive that particular kindness. We do well to transmit grateful acceptance of their gift of caring and we stipulate that their gift hit the mark. This takes practice. But, now with texting, it is just so easy to do. Here’s an example: Thank you very much for shoveling my driveway this morning. When I woke up and saw that it was done I was so relieved because I was already running late this morning before I even realized that it had snowed. The rest of my day would have been a disaster. You saved me more than you can know.

Coda

I love the concept outlined in the fiction FAWBOT for this article that describes a slightly magical power that gathers in those who are routinely, selflessly generous. While the enchantment may not approach the level described by Lloyd C. Douglas, I can assure you that generosity very often tips us toward some kind of biochemically mediated inner strength. Individual gestures of generosity may not be rewarded by fate or acknowledged by others, but an intentionally warmhearted way of being brings an enviable and steady inner peace.

Let’s end with this scenario: There are three people waiting in line at the post office. The first person is a businessman trying to mail a package on his lunch hour. The second is a retired woman stopping on her walk to buy stamps. The third in line is a young woman waiting to pick up a registered letter and is in an earnest conversation with a very cranky toddler. The customer currently at the window is making an involved purchase creating a wait which gives the line cohort a chance to get to know a tiny bit about each other just by observing. The businessman, aware that the mother is getting a rough deal from the toddler, gets out his wallet, makes sure he has the cash to pay for sending the package and watches diligently for the clerk to become available. When it is his turn, he finishes his business as quickly as he can – partly to get back to work on time and partly because he knows that seconds can feel like minutes when a toddler is getting ready to erupt. The retired woman simply smiles and lets the young mom go ahead of her. All three adults feel slightly calmer after leaving the post office because of the quality of their interactions. First-in-line man has a good afternoon and is able to provide a little extra support to his staff. One of those staff people feels so uplifted by this generous and rare positive feedback from his boss that he takes a little time to help a woman out at his gym who is struggling to figure out how to work one of the machines. When it becomes clear to him that she is really lost, he forgoes his workout and walks her through the process of using all the equipment. She feels both well-met and physically tired when she gets home as a result of his ungrudging kindness and she gets a good night’s sleep for a change. In the morning her suicidal thoughts have receded.

Be kind. It could save a life.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.