Extending Kindness to All

“Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree.”  (Marian Wright Edelman)

Attribution: Donna CameronThere’s an old adage that “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.”

We’ve all seen it: some clueless person who treats a waiter, or a cashier, or a laborer as if they don’t matter and are only on the planet to serve Mr. or Ms. Clueless.

Viewed from another angle: we’ve witnessed the people who fall all over themselves to be agreeable when the individuals they are dealing with are famous or “important,” but who look at the rest of us as if we were either invisible or something to be scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

True kindness isn’t selective.  A kind person doesn’t pick and choose whom to be kind to.

A few years ago, there was a story on the news here in Washington about a farmer in the Spokane area who closed his million-dollar-plus account when his bank treated him rudely.  He had gone into the bank somewhat dirty and dressed as he had been when working in his fields.  The bank personnel assumed he was a vagrant and spoke impolitely to him, making it clear they wanted nothing to do with him.  So he decided he wanted nothing to do with them.  He closed his sizable account and moved his money to another bank.  Good for him.

As the story was repeated in different news media, the moral seemed to be “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but that misses the point.  It implies that if, indeed, he had been a vagrant, then it would be okay to disrespect him.  It’s never okay to disrespect anyone.  The deeper lesson of the story is that kindness isn’t situational and it isn’t reserved for some people and not others.

Along this same vein, there have been occasions in our office when someone will call to talk to me and I’ll learn afterward that they were rude and pushy to our receptionist.  I remember one instance in particular:  a representative for a national speaker called to see if any of our client associations were interested in hiring his boss to speak at their conferences.  He bullied and badgered our receptionist, he spoke to her as if she were insignificant, and then asked to talk to me.  When he spoke with me, he was deferential and even fawning—he wanted to do business with our company and he saw me as the key to that door.  When I hung up, Alison came in to my office to ask if he had been as rude to me as he had to her.  Indeed not.  Needless to say, his boss never stood on a stage in front of any of our clients.

Robert Louis Stevenson famously said, “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”  I suspect the food at such a banquet is far more appetizing for those who have consistently chosen kindness.

Some people seem to think they only need to be nice to people who—in some way or another—can help them achieve their aims.  Maybe it’s advancing their career, making an advantageous introduction, or helping to acquire something.  Or perhaps—like the bank personnel—they make a judgment:  this is (or isn’t) an important person and I will treat them accordingly. 

Where do people learn that they don’t have to be kind to the cashier, or the waiter, or the service worker, or the homeless person?  I suspect they learn from watching others—parents first, but then probably bosses, friends, acquaintances, strangers.  Maybe they see it on television.  Children mimic what they see others do and say, not always understanding why.  How good it would be if parents and teachers remember the Marian Wright Edelman quote above and teach children the enormous lifelong value of practicing kindness.

It’s true that there are some people who don’t see any value to being kind, unless it can get them something.  There are some people who are, let’s face it: jerks.  But most of us aren’t.  We just need reminders occasionally that kindness begets further kindness, and that we can always choose kindness.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Kurt Vonnegut)