“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (Jean Vanier)
Do you ever bypass opportunities to extend kindness because they’re just too puny? Just writing a quick note to express appreciation for a colleague’s wise advice, or just offering some leftover soup and store-bought bread to a neighbor—these things seem so small. Insignificant really. If I were really kind, I would send flowers to my colleague, or bake fresh bread for my neighbor. If I am to be a caring and compassionate person, I must express my kindness through grand gestures. Right?
Not so much.
While there’s nothing wrong with grand gestures, a kind life is composed of the myriad ordinary, day-to-day kindnesses that may seem small but accumulate like sand upon the shore.
While researching an article for a business publication, I came across the notion of TNTs, or “tiny noticeable things,” an idea promulgated by British speaker Adrian Webster. TNTs are those small and simple actions we take that brighten the lives of the people with whom we interact. A TNT is a smile, a word of appreciation, an offer of assistance, or the genuine interest we have for the people in our lives. None of these actions is grand or earth-moving, but cumulatively they change moods, change lives, and maybe even can change the world.
Along the same lines, MIT Professor Mary Rowe coined the term “micro-affirmations” when she was serving as the University’s ombudsman in the 1970s. Her job was to address bias against minorities, women, and people with disabilities in the MIT workplace. She described the importance of micro-affirmations, those “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress….”
She also identified what she termed “micro-inequities.” These are “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different’.” Examples might include failing to introduce the participants at a meeting, being too busy to greet a colleague or welcome a guest, making an assumption about a person because of their race or gender, perhaps unintentionally making an insensitive comment. They have a cumulative corrosive effect.
While these terms were originally used to discuss workplace inequality and bias, I believe the concept applies equally to kindness. Let’s call them micro-kindnesses and micro-unkindnesses.
Think about the micro-unkindnesses we encounter daily. We often recognize them by the resigned sigh they evoke in us: a colleague’s scowl, the neighbor who fails to pick up his dog’s poop on your lawn, the long delay for which no explanation or apology is given.
Maybe we’re guilty of micro-unkindnesses ourselves, thinking it really doesn’t matter if we fail to greet our co-workers in the morning, or if we don’t acknowledge the driver who slowed so we could merge into her lane. Such trifling actions don’t really matter, do they? Oh, yes, they do!
Micro-kindnesses are often recognized by our spontaneous smile and accompanying warm feelings: a friendly greeting by the barista or bank teller, the colleague who steps in to help without being asked, the neighbor who shares the bounty from his vegetable garden.
While micro-kindnesses are often related to our interactions with others, they can also be things we do alone: picking up and disposing of trash when we take a walk, rolling the abandoned shopping cart from the parking lot back to the store, feeding a couple of quarters into an expired parking meter. Maybe they don’t feel like much, but imagine a world where such actions were standard operating procedure for most of us.
Like nearly everything that matters in life, micro-kindnesses will grow if we pay attention. If we allow ourselves to be awake and aware—and not completely absorbed by our devices or our tendency to wander into oblivion—we will notice all the little things that call to us: the child in the supermarket who wants us to notice the funny faces he is making (and make a face back at him), the person ahead of us whose hands are too full to open the door, even the small kindness we may need to give ourselves—a few moments of quiet, a walk around the block if we have been sitting too long at our desk.
A Kindness Challenge
With the holidays looming (some would say lurking), I’d like to propose a game for the coming week or two. Take one day to simply pay attention to how many micro-kindnesses you extend in a day. Notice, also, if you succumb to a few micro-unkindnesses. Keep a rough tally and let that number be your baseline. Then each day for the next week or longer, see if you can increase the number of micro-kindnesses and decrease the micro-unkindnesses. You’ll need to keep paying attention. As you notice places where your small acts of kindness are needed, do them. Try to keep track. If counting kindnesses seems just too compulsive and stresses you, don’t count, just pay attention. If it feels like you are doing more little kindnesses each day, then you are and good for you.
Ideally, you’ll like extending small kindnesses so much you’ll simply continue the practice, getting ever better at it. Pretty soon, kindness will become second-nature and you’ll be seeing opportunities—large and small—to extend your kindness everywhere.
Little things do mean a lot!
“On most days, the biggest thing you can do is a small act of kindness, decency or love.” (Cory Booker)