Monday, June 3, 2019

Why being kind to strangers is just as important as being kind to friends

Kindness is one of the first things that I notice about someone. Way before the colour of their eyes, the design on their t-shirt, whether they're drinking coffee or tea. To me, true kindness radiates - warm and lucent like a silent firework. Rare, but unmissable all the same.


It feels wrong to hallmark something so wholesome with an official label, but I think it's important to understand what kindness actually is, because it's so often misunderstood.

Kindness (at least to me) is not general etiquette. It is not being friendly to somebody with the hopes of gaining something in return. It is not being nice to the person you like, and then ceasing all amiability when you realise that it won't work out.

The most common type of kindness, it seems, is the transactional kind. The kind exchanged between friends in a dance of give-and-take. Your friend gave you advice on the phone for an hour last week, so you drive up to see them when they're upset. They drive you to the restaurant so you buy the drinks. But what about the lady at the checkout who you might never see again? What about the old man in the bookshop who stops to ask your thoughts on the paperback that you're holding? What about the woman at the train station wrestling shopping bags and a suitcase down a flight of stairs? How do we treat these people?

To me, that is kindness. It's who you are. How you are. It's recognising the rippling effect of something small. It's showing compassion where it isn't guaranteed in return. I assess someone's kindness not on how they treat their friends and family (though this is of course important) but on how they treat strangers - the people who they might never see again.

It's surprising how many times I've heard different rules and boundaries for kindness. I'm kind to the people who earn it. I'm only nice to people if they're nice to me first. And I can't help but harbour a sadness, wondering when kindness became a currency - given only in measured amounts and for personal gain. This is a different type of kindness. The type that is tarnished with ulterior motive and tunnel-vision. The type that is tucked away, damp and cobwebbed in a corner where being nice is a burden and friends are used as stepping stones by those who are calculative enough - their sole intention to boost reputation, opportunities, ego. The niceties might technically be there - like a helping hand, but the fingers are ice-cold, pinching rather than holding.

This is a kindness that I don't want any part of. Because is it really so bad to be the first person to offer a smile? Wouldn't you rather be the person who smiles without receiving one in return than the person who didn't smile at all?

I'm not sure that there is any one definition for kindness, and that's okay. Actually, that's kind of the point. Because sometimes kindness is letting the customer with a lone tin of soup cut ahead of you and your mountainous trolley. Sometimes it's telling someone to have a nice day, or walking a new student to their class when they look a bit lost.

Undoubtedly, kindness is not shaped by the act itself, or the size of the act, but the intent behind it. I am still absolutely stunned when people - especially people who don't know me very well - go out of their way to show me kindness in any form. Some of the gestures that I treasure most would probably seem miniscule and insignificant to the people who did them, but they are moments of warmth that I still carry around in my pocket.

The truth is, spreading kindness is easy, but so is forgetting the impact of a small gesture. There have been so many times in the past where I would admire someone's jacket, or a piece of writing, or a painting on Instagram, but I would always admire it in my head, worried that they would somehow find me weird for voicing my appreciation out of nowhere. But for all we know, that person could be having a really bad day, or tearing their hair out over the very thing that you are admiring. Your comment could be exactly what they need!

So, if I urge you to do anything, it's to - yes, be kind to your loved ones - but also not to be afraid of showing kindness to strangers, even in the simplest of ways. Because who knows? They may end up being more than just a stranger.

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