Gratitude Challenge – #13 Kindness

The Gratitude Challenge’s thirteenth topic is “Kindness”.

Probably most people want to see themselves as being kind. But are we? Isn’t our biology making us inherently selfish? And are selfishness and kindness mutually exclusive? The term “Nice Guy” can be used both positively as well as negatively, showing the conflict:

When used positively, and particularly when used as a preference or description by someone else, it is intended to imply a man who puts the needs of others before his own, avoids confrontations, does favors, provides emotional support, tries to stay out of trouble, and generally acts nicely towards others.
However, the term is also often used sarcastically, particularly in the context of dating, to describe someone who believes himself to possess genuine “nice guy” characteristics, even though he actually does not, and who uses acts of friendship and basic social etiquette with the ulterior aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship.

Hence, is there genuine kindness without a hidden agenda? Don’t we all – maybe subconsciously – expect to be treated kind if we continuously provide kindness? But are we kind because that’s what we want to receive from others? Are we kind because we want to receive attention and not feel lonely? Is kindness a requirement for human connection? Can everyone be kind? Is it difficult to be kind – or to be unkind?

And can someone be too nice? One of my favourite books, “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoevsky describes how the main character tries to understand and help others in their personal grief. However, people consequently perceive him as “naive”, as they cannot comprehend why someone would just try to help and ease someone else’s pain without any personal interest and expectation for reward:

“The title is an ironic reference to the central character of the novel, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a young man whose goodness, open-hearted simplicity and guilelessness lead many of the more worldly characters he encounters to mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.”

Some friends of mine are being told “you are too nice”. What is the right balance? Does the fact that I was never told that I’m too nice mean that I’m not nice? Or that I just found the right balance?

Recently I went to a music festival that took place on a camping ground. Said place is owned by a family who lives in a small hut directly in the camping area, with some dogs, cats and small children. Their three-year-old daughter for some reason didn’t stop holding my hand, was asking for me every day and wanted to walk around holding my hand even when I went to the stage to dance. Initially I felt flattered that this child apparently liked me so much, but at some point, it became a bit too much, I was there to party after all, not to play babysitter. A friend said that this girl was clever because she knew that I was the person who would not say “no”. And it’s true: I told her several times that she should stay with her family, but eventually I could not be super harsh, because I did not want to see her sad. Am I too kind? Or is this just normal? I certainly did not want to confront this child with the harsh reality that I would rather go dancing alone.

Avoiding confrontation does not always need to be bad though. In my article about love I lamented the lack of confrontation and built-up of tension and passive aggression in the Japanese concept of とりあえず謝る (toriaezu ayamaru): Whatever happened, first apologize. It’s true that I think there is not much value in avoiding confrontation by apologizing for things where you don’t even see yourself to be guilty and then just avoid an uncomfortable conversation while allowing unresolved arguments to pile up. I think being kind does not mean that we must not confront.

However, I do think that there is value in apologizing first when a person voices their frustration, pain, and anger. It does not need to equal a confession of guilt. Instead, it can just be an acknowledgement of the person’s feelings and a genuine regret for seeing that person in pain. Such person certainly does not need explanations or counterarguments as first response, but simply empathetic validation of their feelings. Confrontation can be healthy, but it is not always the best immediate response.

While I’m not very good at confronting, I’m probably even worse at validating someone’s feeling when they are venting. I immediately try to explain myself, quickly feel unfair for “being scolded for something I didn’t do” and try to find “constructive solutions”, while the other person is not in a mindset to do so. Would I be more kind with some more empathy to understand when to confront and when to just listen and validate hurt feelings, even when I think it’s not my fault?

I think kindness also shows when we are ok with not winning the argument, to simply be there for someone and understand their feelings. Accepting that there are no wrong feelings, that feelings are simply a guidance that pop up and that can be of great value if we learn to understand instead of ignoring them. We don’t need to always act on them, but we also do not need to hide them.

What also comes to mind when talking about the Japanese concept of how to apologize is the question if kindness – or what we perceive as kind – has a cultural component. And in fact I do think so. Many people tell me that when they went to Germany they perceived my fellow-countrymen as cold and rude. However, I do not think that any country inherently breeds “bad” people. The aforementioned statements mostly came from people who grew up in a collectivist society where the community is valued over the individual and where own needs and desires put aside if they are not in conformity with general expectations. Both individual and collectivist societies have their attraction. In Asia I often feel very well taken care of, people think for me and go the extra mile to make sure I’m comfortable and safe. Visitors to Asia certainly would describe people as “kind”. Sometimes this paternalistic behaviour – both of people and the state – gives me the feeling though as if I’m treated as a small child: People do what they think is best for me, but I do not have a say in it.

In an individualistic society like Germany on the other hand, you might feel that no one cares about you, that people are not kind to you or each other. However, in my opinion it is simply a different mindset: People do help if you explicitly ask them, but they won’t think for you by default and go the extra mile if you did not even ask them for help. You are treated as a mature individual that is held accountable for their actions. This gives more freedom, but also more responsibility. While I do think that coming as a visitor to a collectivist society can make for a smoother and easier experience than being dropped into an individualistic society where no one might help you if you are too shy to ask, but I do not think that either of the two worlds is any less kind.

Culture is not only something that can describe habits and beliefs in different countries, but it also refers to different areas in our daily life, such as corporate culture. While our business world teaches us to control our emotions and to focus on our rational side, people are described as “cold” if they seem to lack emotions. So what is the right level to still appear professional but to also not turn into a cold robot. And is there maybe also the risk that showing the “wrong” emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment – makes us appear less kind? How can we be perceived as kind, but not to an extend that people feel they can take advantage of it? Is it even desirable to appear kind in a business context? If we allow ourselves to feel, also feel for others, and hence increase our sense of compassion, does it not also create more problems? Is too much kindness inevitably making us depressed, overwhelmed by all these shared negative emotions – resulting in compassion fatigue or maybe epilepsy as our tragic hero Prince Myshkin suffers from?

What I can say is that even in business I always had good experiences when I tried to be nice and understanding – also on an emotional level – instead of just cold and “professional”. It considerably reduces stress when client relationships are good and I believe that since this world is run by humans, every problem we encounter eventually will be a problem between humans, no matter how much technology covers this fact. By establishing good human relationships, it becomes much easier to solve even technical problems. I would even go as far as to say that the most rational engineers still make many decisions based on feelings and it is hence always a good idea to connect on an emotional level, too. It also makes work much more enjoyable for me when I understand more about the “human” side in the people around me and when maybe I can even help to solve some issues that are not immediately business-related. But is it even genuinely kind if someone also has such “practical” considerations like improved client relationships in mind? I want to believe that it is still “kind”, as my intention by being kind in first place is not to improve business or to avoid repercussions.

One last thing that comes to mind is how kindness can be expressed. The saying goes that “actions speak louder than words”, but in fact sometimes for me it is easier to express my feelings towards someone in written form – not only love but also simply a positive connection I am grateful for. I prefer to not have too close physical contact with people and it makes me uneasy when someone is “touchy”. When I lived in Mexico at some point I got seriously annoyed that I was expected to hug everyone and give cheek kisses to women. Of course no one can force me to do it, but if you are the only one staying “distant”, you are easily perceived as exactly that: Not the kind and warm person you would like to be seen as, but a cold and distant guy who’s not very approachable. Hence, can real kindness only be expressed “as a whole” – with how we express it in words and actions? To a certain extend probably yes, but I would hope that especially the people who know us best will understand us better and see our acts and words of kindness expressed in the individual way that each of us has.

While I do not know the definite answers to many of my questions above, I think that “kindness” is not something that needs to be expressed in any certain way – it has cultural and societal and also a lot of individual components that influence how kindness is shown and perceived. As we learn more about the world, its different cultures and most importantly about the individual human beings around us, we can learn to appreciate this diversity and to avoid hurtful misunderstandings. I’m grateful to be surrounded by kind people, to live and work in an environment that seems far from a dog-eat-dog society and where people do not primarily think “every man for himself”. I’m grateful that I experience a lot of altruism, kindness, and genuine interest in each other. I’m grateful that I receive so much positive energy from the people around me, which in turn motivates and inspires me to give such positivity and kindness in return. I’m grateful that I do not live in a negative downward spiral where everyone only thinks of themselves and feasts on schadenfreude, but instead to have the feeling that I live in a positive upwards cycle of benevolence.

This article was written by Fabian

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