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January 16, 2021

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The kindness problem: extending an olive branch to shoddy waitresses everywhere

SHAMEFULLY, last week I acted in a way that doesn’t reflect who I am or the values I hold. In short, I was mean. It wasn’t a planned act of cruelty, I was grouchy at the end of a long day and a waitress bore the brunt. She’d huffed and puffed her way through every interaction, and I lost my patience. My friend - a much nicer person than I am - said, “It’s OK, maybe she’s having a bad day.” I had no such sympathy. With the waitress in earshot, I remarked how poor the service was and lightly mocked her mood. Instantly, I felt hideous.

I pride myself on being kind, the idea of hurting someone stresses me out. And yet that’s what I risked. I was in two minds about writing this article. Fluffy sentiments about compassion and fridge-magnet philosophy aren’t my thing. We all know kindness is a virtue, and we’re all as decent as we can be in any given moment, right? Wrong. If compassion were easy, the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa wouldn’t have spent lifetimes leading us towards it. Nor would service staff and traffic wardens suffer our low-blood sugar levels.

What’s our problem?

Research suggests that insecurity and a lack of self-worth act as barriers to kindness, the same issues that stop us freely accepting it from others. If we feel unworthy, we fear we have nothing to give, and if we have low self-esteem, we struggle to trust compassion. Then there’s stigma.

Kindness is a value overlooked, in part because of the dog-eat-dog mentality of modern-day society. Large-hearted people are considered enablers by some and suckers by others.

A cynical belief that to get anywhere in life, we need to trample over everyone else.

But the cynic’s behavior rarely results in happiness. Instead, kindness is linked with contentment. When we’re kind, we have a heightened sense of good fortune, our self-worth increases, and we feel empowered.

Charitable acts promote empathy which in turn leads to connection. And it’s contagious. When we start acting with kindness or seeing it in others, we look for more opportunities to show it. As such, one small act can have unknown consequences. The extraordinary effect of ordinary actions, that can be life-changing.

In 2020, Xu Leijing, a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, was diagnosed with a painful skin disease that caused her body to turn on itself. Crippling medical costs left her parents in mounting debt and the unimaginable position of not sustaining vital care for their daughter. Alumni from the university heard of Xu’s diagnosis, and as word spread among WeChat groups, individuals sought to support the family with financial contributions. People gave what they could with donations ranging between 1 yuan and 1,000 yuan (US$160). Grassroots kindness caught the attention of local media, and as news traveled, donations beyond the alumni poured in. The local government contributed, and individuals as far as the United States sent money. From street sweepers to business executives, individual acts of generosity grew into a community initiative that traveled the world. Put differently, kindness went viral.

As inspiring as these examples of compassion are, inspiration fades. So the question is, how do we sustain it?

There are countless ways to change the world. Some involve billions of dollars and complex strategies, while others take nothing more than a hug. What’s unique about kindness is that it costs nothing and is accessible to everyone. But like fruit from the forbidden tree, benignity is taboo. We see goodness as a dangerous crack in our armor, one that leaves us exposed and at risk of rejection.

Recently I arrived at work to find an e-mail from a colleague sitting in my inbox. Luhang had seen me around the office but we’d not yet spoken. Having read my articles, she knew I was learning Chinese and wanted to help. Aside from generosity, what struck me about Luhang’s e-mail was her vulnerability. She wrote she was shy, a little nervous and had no teaching experience. In our third lesson, I asked Luhang why her kindness came with a caveat. “I was worried you might think badly of me,” she said, “and I knew it’d be awkward if you declined my help.”

There’s a difference between being kind and being nice. Pleasantries don’t require us to be vulnerable.

We can be friendly without risk of exposure or genuine care of the outcome. Kind is messy. It takes energy and effort, and demands connection — an awareness and intent around the impact of our words or actions.

It also means suspending judgment and accepting people as they are, including waitresses.

Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I think the same can be said here. Like luck, kindness isn’t about being in the right place at the right time. Nor is it about the day we’ve had or the mood we’re in. Compassion is a commitment. It’s about being open and ready for new opportunities.

Back at the restaurant, the waitress’s scowl still has the power to rot the food she’s throwing at you. Rather than reacting, I now make a point of being gracious. I catch her eye, offer a smile and thank her for her efforts. In response, she looks at me with all the warmth of a rattlesnake. And that’s OK.

The next time you’re victim to shoddy service or someone hurts your feelings, try to think kindly upon them. Before seeing red, witness an opportunity to dig deep and respond with heart.

... And if you can’t manage that, take comfort in knowing that chances are, they’re a broken human with vulnerability issues and low self-esteem. Hurrah!


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