Kindness Is Contagious – and Good for Business
There is no downside to kindness
Kathy Felt, and her next door neighbor, Keith Pugmire, are the stars of a segment presented on CBS Sunday Morning about the spontaneous generosity of a neighborhood in Sandy, Utah. The story actually began about ten years ago when the progression of Kathy’s Multiple Sclerosis rendered her incapable of putting herself to bed or getting up in the morning. Even though she very much wanted to stay in her home, living alone made moving to long-term care her only choice. That’s when Keith Pugmire knocked on her door with a plan: He and the 60 other mend he had recruited from the neighborhood volunteered – two at a time – to put her to bed each evening for as long as they were needed; her two sons and a nurse’s aide help her each morning. Ten years later, the volunteers still show up each evening, having never missed a bedtime, and their numbers have grown far beyond the original group of volunteers. It’s a story that had me in tears and feeling uplifted.
The Kindness of Strangers
What happened is that I was touched by the generosity of strangers. Later, it occurred to me that we could use a bit more generosity in our world if only as a counterpoint to the hyper divisiveness we see around us on a regular basis. I’ll go further than that: In the context of “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” I believe that “being touched” is something that could be incorporated into a company’s customer and employee experiences.
The will-thing is important, as it takes much more than desire to incorporate it into the routines of employees as they take care of customers and one another. One of those necessary things is for leaders to understand the psychology of the emotion I call “touched.” Such an understanding could contribute to raising the bar on their customer and employee experiences because, as we shall see, being touched is never on the list of anyone’s expectations, and therein lies its value. Being touched is the surprise that adds “Wow!” to any experience, as the following example illustrates:
About ten years ago, one of the people in our company (I’ll call her Sue) had the unfortunate experience of having her home burn to the ground, along with all of her family’s possessions and pets. Scary and very sad, as you can imagine.
The next day, I was talking to the president of one of the companies Corvirtus has served over the years and mentioned the tragedy to him. Paul asked me to relay his sympathy to Sue – and that seemed the end of that, except that it wasn’t. The next day, she received a check for $2,500 via FedEx with a note of condolence. I was touched by the generosity of Paul and his company, and called him to tell him so. His response was simple and modest: “Partners help partners, and our companies have been partners for a long time.”
Think about a time when you have been “touched” by the caring of a stranger, or simply saw it. It was wonderful, I’m sure, and your spirits were lifted by an unexpected act of kindness.
Being touched is a feeling, and so it’s natural that it sounds a bit soft. This nature also makes it hard to imagine being able to implement it into a company’s culture. This is especially true when you dig into the feeling, only to discover that one of its defining characteristics is that it comes as a surprise, and never as an expectation. In short, it cannot be made automatic, but I believe that it can be made routine in even the most mundane of experiences with a little effort.
What could be more mundane than a family outing on Mother’s Day? I come from a large family (mostly thanks to my sister), so there was a bunch of us gathered at my parents’ favorite restaurant for brunch. We were standing around in the lobby waiting for our table when disaster struck: a “little something” dropped from my grand-nephew’s diaper onto the floor.
It seemed as though everyone saw it. His mom, who was new to the mom-thing, looked horrified. Just then, a quick-thinking server walked by and, in one smooth motion, dropped a napkin over the “little something” as she headed for the kitchen, never missing a step. In a minute or two she returned, reached down and picked up the napkin with the “little something” in it, smiled at my niece, and went on her way as though nothing had happened. No words passed, only the caring of one person for another as my niece’s expression quickly went from shock, to relief, and then a giggle and laugh that everyone in the lobby shared. She had experienced the thoughtful kindness of a stranger – and that’s about as close to a definition of “touched” as I can come up with.
All of the characteristics of a touching experience are in the example I just shared:
- Element of surprise
- Connecting a stranger’s humanity to another stranger’s humanity
A touching experience does not exceed expectations for the simple reason that it’s an unexpected and, therefore, surprising act of caring. That’s one of the things that makes the event so memorable. My niece didn’t even have the time to ask her husband for the diaper bag before the server swooped in to save the day.
Another thing that being touched is that it can happen in a limitless number of situations. Indeed, any situation where one person has the opportunity to care for another. Being touched – as the term implies – demands person-to-person contact (but not necessarily face-to-face) and involves sharing. We are moved by a beautiful landscape, but touched when something passes between us and another person. We do not have to be directly involved, but can be touched by the caring and generosity of others, as the CBS Sunday Morning segment so well illustrates.
It’s an unexpected kindness from an unexpected source at just the right moment that catches us up with emotion to touch us. It is for this reason that it is more likely to happen with someone we do not know than it is with someone we do know, such as a member of our immediate family. We are more apt to be touched by the expression of caring from a stranger, or in a context normally devoid of such human emotion, like the scripted courtesy of a flight attendant or hotel front desk person.
The surprise element in the emotion of being touched accounts for the fact that very small gestures are capable of precipitating major changes in relationships and creating lasting memories. The unexpectedness of the kindness — so essential an ingredient of being touched — explains why the term is more often used in the context of our casual relationships than with our close ones.
If a stranger gets the door for you when your arms are full or stops to pick up something you have dropped, you will be touched. (Narcissists are an exception to this rule.) The circumstance will rarely be a big thing, but it will always be a touching thing. Being touched is a gentle and delicate emotion, like the one I recently read about where a man flying first-class gave his seat to a woman traveling alone in coach with a small child. She was touched, and he was uplifted by a simple act of kindness.
As you can see, being touched is a gentle and delicate reminder that each of us needs to be cared for, if for no other reason than to validate that we matter. It is a need for belonging and significance that is touched when someone says they care about us not in so many words, but through deliberate attention to our comfort and well-being.
“Commit random acts of kindness” is a bumper sticker. It’s also a reminder to be thoughtful. It might seem a bit sad that we must be reminded to be thoughtful of others. But if you are like most people, you will conclude that the reminder is really meant for others until you recognize the fact that being thoughtful is not a natural act – it’s learned, as are all virtues. What’s exciting is that because it has to be learned, it can be taught!
Please and Thank You as a Training Program
Politeness is the most basic of the virtues that define our humanity. It’s also the only one that is totally fake. The most evil person can be polite while remaining evil, and con artists are invariably polite. If a terrorist is polite, it changes nothing about terrorism or its horrors. Politeness does not care about morality. What it does do is to make us approachable – no one likes boorish behavior. And while it can clothe both the best and the worst in us, it sets us up to do good things, as there is no difference between seeming to be polite and actually being polite. With politeness, what you see is all there is . Nothing is the hallmark of politeness as it is form without substance, but a form that illustrates the core of all virtue: It must be learned. If we are lucky, we learn politeness from our parents’ insistence that we say “Please” and “Thank you” and not be overtly selfish. It is parental teaching with only one purpose: to make us acceptable to others, including our parents.
Good manners precede and prepare the way for good deeds, but they by no means guarantee them. As Aristotle made clear some 2,500 years ago, “we learn by doing.” That is, morality – including being thoughtful of others – is at first nothing more than an act. We become just by doing just acts, courageous by doing courageous acts, and thoughtful by doing thoughtful acts. In short, random acts of kindness can be systematized!
Thoughtfulness is real even when it is faked, just as good manners are. By practicing thoughtfulness – at first awkwardly – we become thoughtful. If we are fortunate, we have our parents to imitate as most would like to raise their children to be thoughtful adults. In this way, one generation educates the next by insisting upon mimicry until being thoughtful becomes a habit and the child grows into an adult on the lookout for the opportunity to serve others.
Not surprisingly, the skills of virtue teaching are unevenly distributed among parents so that those of us groomed by less competent virtue teaching parents enter the workplace being, in varying degrees, poorly prepared to be thoughtful of others, but that does not mean that they cannot be taught. Indeed, the value of random acts of kindness – the product of being thoughtful – can be taught.
Changing this state of affairs begins with recognizing that it exists and that being thoughtful lacks the automaticity of breathing, pulling your hand away from a hot flame, or jumping out of the way of a speeding car. Because thoughtfulness lacks automaticity, it at first has to be demanded not unlike the demands for civility made by our parents. I was raised in the time of “Yes sir or ma’am” and “Please and Thank You.” It was not automatic on my part nor was it voluntary. My parents made it a rule that had to be followed. It’s ironic that being thoughtful has some of that compulsion to it – perhaps more in the form of intent. In order to commit acts of random kindness, you have to intend to and then you have to be vigilant about identifying the opportunities until the whole cycle becomes automatic.
There is no reason that I can think of why the workplace shouldn’t be a place to build the habit of thoughtfulness by teaching and then insisting on civility or encouraging and rewarding acts of kindness. A genuine please and thank you can be touching in the right situation as can be a few crackers for a restless child just sitting down to dinner in a restaurant. If we look for opportunities to touch and teach others how to do it, it just might become a habit that is good for the individual and the business.
 Comte-Sponville, A. A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues. New York, New York, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2001.