Who knew that mean people could be such great teachers? Sometimes big life lessons come from unlikely places.
When I was in college more than 30 years ago, I would ride my bike up the long hill to work at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California. My job, which was a means to supplement my college student income, included serving food and drinks poolside during the summer. The guests at this grand, early-19th-century hotel were typically affluent and, in some cases, entitled. On my first day of training, I listened carefully to the instruction to stay kind, and to be generously accommodating with hotel guests and club members. For me, such instructions created an opportunity to unintentionally conduct my own personal experiment on the power of kindness.
Each day of receiving bitter or sweet requests from guests, I remained pleasant, accommodating, and kind. No matter what they said or did, I continued to treat them respectfully, to smile, and to genuinely try to address their concerns. While I was certainly motivated to do this by tips, in time I also began to be curious. Within a couple of weeks, I started to notice a pattern: If I stayed genuinely kind in my response to guests who demanded immediate action for their urgent concern about the food or service, eventually they would soften their disposition. It was emotional jiu-jitsu. Each time, I would step out of the way and not become entangled in the guests’ bad mood or state of agitation.
By mid-summer, I witnessed one guest after another being compelled to abandon his or her meanness and surrender to the consistent kindness I inhabited. This approach of being generously kind never failed to shift the guest’s disposition. On many days, as I coasted my bike homeward at sunset, with the full view of San Francisco before me, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for all the people who crossed my path that day — the good, the bad, and the temperamental.
Eventually, I reflected on my own behavior, and I noticed. three key features to make kindness powerful:
1. Make your kindness genuine. To authentically feel compassion is important. Faking kindness is not the same as sincerely exhibiting kindness toward other people. And most people notice the difference.
2. Be persistent in your acts of kindness. No matter what a person says, accuses you of, or demands, rise above it. Claim your power to be kind and don’t let people rob you of that power. Recognize as well that if a person’s behavior is abusive, the kind thing for you to do is leave, to prevent him or her from indulging in behaviors that will later cause themselves regret and anguish
3. Design personal daily practices that allow you to do the first two. Daily practices include running, prayer, meditation, yoga, laughing, journaling, intimacy, or whatever helps you to feel grounded and centered in who you are.
The magic of kindness: Signaling you are friend, not foe.
I’ll admit that my experiment with kindness is an anecdotal story, without empirical evidence. However, research suggests that kindness can be a powerful force in de-escalating another person’s mean and angry behavior. Research from the field of evolutionary and physiological psychology provides strong evidence that we have fight-or-flight tendencies in response to perceptions of threat (Jansen et al, 1995). Further, there is evidence that these tendencies relax in the context of feeling safe in our social environment. Genuine kindness, defined as an act or quality of action that conveys respect for the dignity of another person, signals to others that we do not seek to harm them (Estrada, Eroy-Reveles, & Matsui, in press). Rather, kindness signals that we are actually a friend and helper. Consistent kindness cues that affirm another's personhood are powerful forces for changing that person’s perception that you are an enemy. Instead, such cues activate the norms of friendship, including acting cooperatively and kindly.
Conduct your own experiment!
I can assure you that commitment to consistent kindness can be a powerful life lesson. It has permeated my work since that summer at the Claremont Hotel. Even now, when I feel the need to fight back, I take a deep breath and assert my power to stay in the kindness zone. With this energy, I lead community and scholarly projects with diverse (and sometimes demanding) collaborators. I am not always able to exhibit the amount of kindness I want to, but when I do, a better outcome always results.
I encourage you to take the next week and try an experiment in leading with kindness. Let me know how it goes for you.
Estrada, M., Eroy-Reveles, A., & Matsui, J. (in press). The influence of affirming kindness and community on broadening participation in STEM career pathways. Social Issues Policy Review.
Jansen, A. S., Nguyen, X. V., Karpitskiy, V., Mettenleiter, T. C., & Loewy, A. D. (1995). Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science, 270(5236), 644-646.