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Pondering… Why are people so unkind?


by Molly Carlile (
Australian singer Kamahl was famously attributed with posing this question years ago and though he has consistently said it was taken out of context, I think it a question worth pondering.

As a global community, it seems to me that we value the ‘lofty’ virtues, courage, generosity, bravery, justice, self control, altruism, fortitude, morality, loyalty and so the list goes on. We see this reflected in mainstream media where, if we take courage for example, it can mean anything from a person risking their life to save a pet from a burning house, to a footballer running on an injured leg and kicking the winning goal in a grand final. Sure, these things may well be courageous, but if we allow our wisdom and morality to be dictated by the five o’clock news, we run the risk of undervaluing the gentler virtues. Those virtues that aren’t newsworthy enough to hit the headlines, and kindness, in my view, is top of the list.

Why did I start thinking about this? Well, I spend so much of my time talking, listening and interacting with people from different professions, from different cultures and people working and living in a diverse range of environments and yet I constantly feel a level of disconnect from people that made me wonder about all of this. Recently a friend of mine was talking about her workplace and how all they care about is ‘the bottom line’. The same day at a workshop a nurse told me she didn’t have time to talk to patients, “cause she had too much work to do!” Of course, this was like the proverbial “red rag to a bull” and I asked her to tell me about the ‘work’ that took precedence over talking to her patients. Sadly, it was the age old story of demands on her time that made her feel pressured and anxious. Fearful that a patient would want more of her time than she was able to give, she gave no time at all…she avoided communicating with her patients, just in case she couldn’t meet their expectations.

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This is not an unusual occurrence. You only need to spend as much time as I do talking to nurses, doctors and other health professionals to understand why patients think that hospitals are soulless, uncaring places. No one has adequate time to spend so rather than disappoint their patients; they avoid them all together and put all of their energy into tasks rather than into “people”. But this practice isn’t confined to healthcare.

Have you tried to get served in a shop lately? Or what about the hairdressers? Years ago an appointment at the hairdresser wasn’t so much about the haircut, but about the relationship you had with the person cutting your hair. They were your counsellor, your cheer squad, your Australian Women’s Weekly gossip columnist. They were with you for the length of your appointment, fussing, talking, listening, cutting, dyeing, washing and MASSAGING your head. Now, you’re lucky if they stand behind your chair for five minutes before racing off to put in someone else’s foils or to wash off someone else’s perming solution or to answer the phone. And you know what? If you talk to them, they feel just as frustrated, just as pressured and have just as little job satisfaction as their contemporaries who work in health or in call centres or for the government or in any other environment you can think of. And when people are constantly under this sort of pressure, whether real or imagined, they lose their humanity, little by little. It stops being a job and becomes a battle for survival. Once this all pervading culture invades a workplace, it gains more and more momentum as the stress levels of the staff rise. Over time, people forget to be polite, they forget to be thoughtful and they forget to be kind, it’s all they can do to maintain the struggle to keep their heads above water. This HAS to change!

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Time has a constant presence in conversations about workload, career development, organisational culture, job satisfaction and consumer or customer satisfaction. Talk to anyone who’s required a service lately or think about the last time you wanted to buy something in a shop. The ‘give away’ symptom of a disempowered, stressed and unsatisfied staff member is that they will not have eye contact with you. If they don’t see you, you can’t require anything of them and therefore they can finish the task at hand.

What happened the last time you went to the doctor’s surgery? If you’re like me and sometimes find yourself at one of the ‘McDoctor’s’, you won’t get eye contact from the receptionist when she calls your name, from the doctor (for the two minutes you’re sitting across the desk from him/her) you won’t even get eye contact after the whole process is finished and you pay your bill. Then you go home with a script for your infection and a ball of anger in your gut. You walk in the back door and realise that because you had to wait for an hour beyond your appointment time to spend that precious two minutes in the doctor’s office, you have now run out of time to cook dinner, so you have to order take away. And guess what? The lady on the phone says “Sorry there’ll be an hour wait for home delivery ’cause we’re really busy”.

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Every person we come in contact with during the day ‘splatters’ us with their frustration and we become contaminated. It’s like a virus and it’s virulent. I call it the “I don’t have time” virus and we need to find a cure before we all become anxious, angry, despondent and unkind. From there it’s a fast downhill slide into chaos. Relationships cannot survive this virus. Organisations can’t survive it. Community groups definitely can’t survive it. AND yet…

Think about what has happened in the past months with the disasters in Queensland and Victoria. People have SOMEHOW been able to shake of the shackles of this virus, put aside their normal lives and go to the aid of areas devastated by flood. Lots of people have avoided the temptation to say “I don’t have time” and have proactively DONE something. They’ve donated money, advice, expertise, goods, clothes and TIME. But I’m not suggesting that we all “down tools” and head to disaster zones, in fact what I’m saying is that if we don’t do something soon we’ll all be living and working in emotional, social and spiritual disaster zones of our own creation.

So where do we begin?

My suggestion is to start small. Kindness doesn’t require as much concentrated thought and energy as empathy and compassion. It is the first step towards empathy and compassion. At the risk of embarking on a diatribe about ethics theory, my simple understanding is this. Empathy, requires us to ‘step into someone else’s shoes’, stay there for a bit, feel how it feels, think their thoughts and experience their experience, then step back out, better informed. Compassion requires us to take action.

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Therefore my simple equation is that empathy + action = compassion.

It requires intention, heart and commitment. Compassion takes work and personal investment.

Kindness is a whole lot easier. We don’t HAVE to be able to empathise to be kind. Kindness is as simple as a touch, a thought, a gentle word, a smile. Kindness can be as simple as NOT bitching behind someone’s back or scowling at the girl behind the counter in the bakery, not matter how long she’s kept us waiting. Kindness can be as simple as doing something to save someone else having to do it. It can be cleaning up the cat poo on the kitchen floor, to save your partner having to do it or watching “Top Gear” because he enjoys it (even though you can’t stand Jeremy Clarkson). Kindness doesn’t take a huge effort, it requires little or no planning and you can wrap it into your day with a minimum of fuss.

Being unkind, in my mind, is not an act of commission, but merely an act of omission. You haven’t necessarily done something cruel or mean or hurtful to someone else, you just haven’t had the presence of mind or the wisdom to BE KIND. It’s up to you to want to change this.

Kindness probably won’t win you a Nobel Peace Prize, but it will make someone else’s day just a little bit better and you know what? It will make YOU feel better. Kindness is also contagious and I believe it’s the perfect cure to the “don’t have time” virus…..Why? Because it takes no time at all to be kind, it takes only a shift in your consciousness. It requires you to open your eyes, your ears and your hearts and the rest will follow. You’ll begin to notice what’s happening around you, in your home, in your workplace and in your community. You’ll incorporate a touch, a smile a gentle thought into your day and everyone will feel the benefit. People around you will model what you do and before you know it your organisational culture will start to change. People may even start to experience some joy in their work. Time will cease to be an artificial, linear construct and will evolve to be more about quality rather than quantity.

Now you might well read this and say, “What would she know? She doesn’t work in the dump I work in!” And you’d be right, I don’t know how it is for you, but I know the difference it made for me some years ago when I decided it was up to ME, to change how I felt about things in order to change what I experienced every day. All I can tell you is that kindness costs nothing, but you stand to gain a whole new perspective on life and you have the opportunity to experience joy you never thought was possible. I’m no Aristotle, no Socrates, I can only tell you what’s real for me, after that, it’s up to you. I just can’t help but think, if we all decided right here, right now to be kind, how different our world would be.

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