A little follow up to Kindness

Earlier this week I posted a comparison of the words Niceness and Kindness, particularly in regard to how they affect our interactions with people.

Today, I was called to Jury Duty.

For a number of reasons, going to something like Jury Duty in downtown Houston for criminal court in one of the largest cities in the country is more than just the usual Ugh/Pain in the Ass/Do I really have to do this? reaction.

I started preparing for having to do this three weeks ago. I made maps and memorized them, checked and double checked that I had the proper amount of cash. Treated myself to a new multi-color pencil to take with me for drawing mandalas as a way to help with anxiety. I called my doctor and arranged to make sure that I wouldn’t have to worry about my meds at all this week and got her advice on ways to manage the situation (as well as her assurance that, if I woke up today in a huge anxiety attack, that she would call the courthouse and help me deal with getting rescheduled). I carefully analyzed my clothes for comfort level, ability to stay warm, and ability to almost completely hide my body. I packed my purse two days ago.

Today, prepared for the worst of the worst, but going into it knowing I’d done everything in my power to make it as manageable an experience as possible… I went, and was blown away by kindness.

The man at the metal detector, who not only smiled, but struck up a little conversation about my insulated water bottle. The parking garage attendant who gave me advice on parking, told me how to get to the elevators (on the other side of the building), and then gave me excellent directions for how to get back to the highway from his parking garage. The jury summons attendants greeting people and giving directions to make sure we got where we needed to be and didn’t have to flounder around in the wrong place. The multiple friendly and good natured people waiting with me in various places.

And especially Bailiff Anderson, who had probably the most control over what was a largely uncontrolled process for us, and who went out of his way to make it at least tolerable.

You see, I got selected to go in with a jury pool of 80 people for a large criminal case. We were the largest group by far, and 80 people can be a little unwieldy in the best of situations. And then there were problems. We had to walk a little over 3 blocks to get to the right courthouse, go to the 15th floor, wait, go to the 20th floor, wait some more. Go into a courtroom, go back outside. Go into a different courtroom. And Bailiff Anderson, who had no more idea what was causing the delays than we did for most of it, cracked jokes and generally was an incredibly good sport with the 80 strangers standing around who had no idea what was going on, why it was taking so long, and really, none of whom was thrilled to even be there in the first place.

In the end, he had to explain that there had been some major issue with the case (the judge wasn’t able to talk about it, so he got the honors), and we were to be dismissed.

And then we played The Price Is Right to get our dismissal tickets.

Which is all to say that the kindness thing really does work. None of those people had to be kind, but they all chose to treat us like humans – possibly even as confused and uncomfortable humans who could really use a friendly face.

Because of them, what could have been a really, truly horrible day was stressful and exhausting, but manageable instead of sending me into an anxiety spiral for the next few days.

I won’t say I’m glad for doing it, especially since today is “Sunday” and I start my work week tomorrow.

But I’m very, very glad for those people who chose to be kind today, when their jobs really do put them in contact with a lot of unhappy people on a very regular basis. Perhaps they’re just kind, friendly people in general, or perhaps they too made the choice to be kind rather than simply polite.

*A note to Bailiff Anderson – you told us to tell your wife and your boss that you were awesome. Sadly, I don’t know either of those people, though I did mention you to the attendant on the way out of the courthouse. Instead, I’ll give you what little word fame I can. Thank you for your service and your great attitude.

Cultivating Kindness

*crossposted from Seven Deadly Divas*

There are a few posts flying around the interwebs about kindness lately (the one that first got me thinking is on the same site as was part of the notable Dickwolves Brouhaha).

I like words. Specifically, I like how words can be very precise even when we don’t really think about their meanings or use them interchangeably. For example:

Kindness vs. Niceness

Kind:

  • having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature; used especially of persons and their behavior; “kind to sick patients”; “a kind master”; “kind words showing understanding and sympathy”; “thanked her for her kind letter”
  • charitable: showing or motivated by sympathy, understanding, and generosity

Nice:

  • pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance; “what a nice fellow you are and we all thought you so nasty”- George Meredith; “nice manners”; “a nice dress”; “a nice face”; “a nice day”; “had a nice time at the party”; “the corn and tomatoes are nice today”
  • decent: socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous; “from a decent family”; “a nice girl”
  • courteous: exhibiting courtesy and politeness; “a nice gesture”

In relation to people, those are two very different concepts, and I think our society over stresses “niceness” to the point that “kindness” is often forgotten.

Which makes sense because niceness is about social compliance.

Someone who is socially or conventionally correct, who doesn’t “make waves”, inconvenience others, or act disagreeably, is a “nice” person. You can have nice dogs – they’re dogs that don’t impose on you, who behave appropriately and not intrusively or in an objectionable manner. It’s essentially… well… a social nicety. (Go figure on that phrase, right?)

Acting “un-nice” gets an immediate social reaction of disapproval and (sometimes) shame. We are expected to be nice – to value and serve the social structure as more important than the people in it.

Kindness, on the other hand, is more about awareness of others as well as self. It takes paying attention to others, and an active attempt to understand where they’re coming from and what’s happening. A nice response might be the same as a kind one sometimes, but ultimately niceness serves society where kindness serves people.

I’d even go so far as to say that kindness is more akin to compassion than it is to niceness. Kindness isn’t really something you can expect, and forced kindness starts to look a lot like being “nice” instead.

For example: as a child, I was told to write thank you notes to everyone who gave me gifts – to the point of not being able to use those gifts until I had written and mailed the thank you for it. That’s niceness.

As an adult, however, I know how much I love getting mail and hearing from friends in a physical way (especially the friends who live far away). I have intentionally kept up with writing thank you notes, not because I know it’s expected of me (it’s really not, at least not in this internet age) but as a way to do something unexpected and catch up with a friend. Do I gain some benefit from it? Of course. But that benefit is more from knowing that I have the ability to make a mailbox full of bills less depressing than it is from any expectation of a return note or even an acknowledgment. Writing a note has gone from socially expected niceness to a choice I make to do a little kind thing with 5 minutes of my day.

(I admit, however, that I did not particularly relish writing wedding thank you notes, because THOSE were expected social niceness. Even if I did have fun playing with stamps.)

The internet tends to value niceness over kindness – much like society as a whole. In large groups of people, those social niceties are what keep things flowing in a way that everyone is comfortable and familiar with.

Kindness stands out, where niceness is expected, and in our happy little intertube world, kindness is harder. It’s much easier to be compassionate to the friend sitting next to you than it is to think about a pixellated icon as a person to whom you might choose to be kind.

Of course, it’s easily as important to be kind to yourself as it is to be kind to others. Some would say (if you are one to believe in the golden rule) that being kind to yourself is the first step in being kind to others. To treat others as you’d like to be treated is to first value yourself and others equally and to know how you wish to be treated and what your personal and emotional state is

Sometimes the ultimate act of self-kindness is to allow yourself to look inward and rest, to step away from niceness and realize that putting others above yourself is as disproportionate as putting others below yourself. Forcing yourself to be kind to others in a way that depletes your energy and makes you miserable isn’t kind to you.

There’s a balance to be had there, and I’m the first to admit that I’m pretty bad at it. But I am trying, and slowly getting better at knowing when I need to be kind to myself and when I can choose to be kind to others (and reminding myself to apologize when I am decidedly unkind).

Niceness doesn’t really mean being good to yourself or to others, it’s simply social compliance. Not that social compliance is inherently bad (cutting in line is kind of asshatish), but it’s not the most important of our interactions with others. Niceness doesn’t improve friendships or create connections the way kindness can – and it certainly doesn’t recharge our batteries and allow us to rest and take care of ourselves. Kindness is one of the seven virtues precisely because it DOES do those things. I’d go so far as to argue that kindness (both to self and to others) can really improve the quality of our relationships.

And maybe that’s a little too kum-ba-ya for a Monday morning, but I think it’s important to think about.