Circa 1300s the word ‘kindness’, as a noun, came in to use to describe both ‘courtesies’ and ‘noble deeds’. In Latin the word is ‘humanitas’ and has three definitions – ‘humanity or human nature’, ‘kindness or courtesy’, and ‘culture or civilisation’. *
I was 15km into a 25km hike on the weekend when I realised that I found these definitions profoundly unsettling. That kindness can be defined so broadly, covering all manner of actions, including everyday niceties, bothered me for a further three kilometres through the bush and heat, before I realised the problem.
I did not want my manners to be mistaken, or accepted, as acts of kindness.
While I pride myself on my ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’, with every step I took I realised that if this was where we set the bar for kindness, then it was going to be a long hike.
I was raised to say “I have had an elegant sufficiency”, before excusing myself from the table, and to stand back and let others go first (doors / elevators etc…). I greet people as a matter of courtesy and am always quick with a smile. I hold doors, make eye contact when taking change, ease back so cars can merge, and wouldn’t hesitate to give up my seat. (All that said, I am by no means a paragon of virtue… I can also be impolite and selfish when the mood pleases. It’s only my default setting of being polite that stops me being outright rude in some instances… that, and the fact that the last thing we all need is more aggro in the world.)
None of this, however, qualifies me as ‘being kind’. Being polite and having manners certainly makes life more pleasant for all, but these are not acts of kindness. They are common courtesies. They are, if you like, artifice. They tell you nothing about my actual character, in as much as manners may be genuine or they may be calculated. Whereas kindness, I believe, comes from the heart. Noble deeds, yes. Courtesies, no.
Perhaps this is more easily understood when reflecting on what is considered ‘good manners’ (i.e. courtesies) around the world. In Finland and Japan, for example, people remove their shoes before entering a home. It’s not an act of kindness, adhering to a person’s cultural norms is actually just good manners (and, in this case, hygienic). In Japan you should also always keep an eye on others’ drinks and keep them filled. It’s both rude to fill your own glass, or to neglect someone else’s. So too, in Australia, being punctual isn’t a sign of your kindness, just that you are well mannered and respectful of other people’s time.
While not wanting to suggest we retire our every day demonstrations of good manners, my concern is that when we lump them together in our definition of kindness, we potentially take our eye off the true purpose and power of kindness. Pleasantries are lovely. They make people feel good – both the giver and receiver. Just as kindness does. However, I believe, that kindness has the power to take us places that pleasantries can’t. It is an act that asks us to come off auto-pilot, step outside our comfort zone and rise up.
Perhaps then, we should focus on the first definition of ‘humanitas’ – and ask ourselves, how can I best express my humanity today? Or – What is my human nature? It is to be kind as courteous? Or is to be kind through selfless and noble acts?
Albert Schweitzer said: Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun melts the ice, kindness can cause misunderstandings, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”
* Caveat: I apologise to any etymology experts I have offended with my rudimentary explanation of the word ‘kindness’.
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