Science has determined that both incivility and kindness are contagious. Like a virus, they’re transmitted from one person to the next. If we experience rudeness or kindness — even if we only witness them — we will tend toward that behavior in our next encounters. So, we have a choice of which contagion we want to spread. It seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of factors can get in the way.
Sometimes, someone speaks rudely to us and our immediate response is to throw shade back at them. After all, it’s the people who know us best who know exactly which of our buttons to push.
Other times, we’re caught up in our own heads. We may be absorbed in our devices or our own internal drama, or maybe we’re just zoned out. We don’t see the person with arms full who is struggling to open a door, the car attempting to change lanes or the child who craves our attention.
Maybe we think extending a kindness will take too much time or effort, and we’re already feeling overloaded and overwhelmed.
Does kindness make us weak?
Each time we extend a kindness, we’re moving the needle toward a behavior that others might follow.
Sometimes it comes easily — we pay attention and put forth a little effort. We hold a door, smile at a stranger, express interest in someone’s life. Each one makes the next time easier.
But sometimes it’s hard. Responding with kindness to a brother-in-law’s insulting remark may feel like handing over power to him. We wonder whether responding to unkindness with kindness just rewards the unkind person, or whether they’ll see us as weak and think they can take advantage of us. Is it better to give them a taste of their own medicine?
Most unkind or dishonest people assume everyone is just as unkind and dishonest as they are. When we treat them as they treated us, we reinforce that notion.
While our kind gesture or ability to absorb an insult without lobbing it back may not change the unkind person, it doesn’t mean we’re conceding the playing field to them. We’re playing by our rules and being our best selves. We don’t withhold kindness until people deserve it. We’re kind because of who we are, not who the other person is.
How to avoid detonating the room
In anticipation of family gatherings — the coming holidays, for example — imagine scenarios in which someone speaks rudely to you or disrespectfully to someone else. Think about how you might respond in a way that upholds your values and doesn’t detonate the room.
Imagine not only the words you will use, but also the tone of your voice and how you might stand. Then stand that way. Speak those words. Learn what it feels like, and develop a comfort in that space. Knowing in advance how you want to respond makes it easier.
Another strategy is to be curious. Ponder why Aunt Sylvia acted that way. Maybe she’s stressed by something you’re unaware of — a friend’s illness or money problems. Maybe this is her response to fear or vulnerability. Maybe she regretted her words as soon as they were spoken. Can you offer her the benefit of the doubt? As soon as we acknowledge that we may not know everything, it’s easier to respond in a way we won’t regret.
What if the person really is a complete jerk?
That’s still no reason for us to act like one. In fact, if we do, doesn’t the jerk win? Just because someone else is acting badly doesn’t mean we have to. It’s hard. Offensive behavior may make bullies feel stronger or superior, but they are neither. They lack the courage or understanding to be kind. Something has taught them that kindness doesn’t matter and they need always to appear to have the upper hand. That’s their problem. Our job is to live our values and to be our best self.
Try to seek the safest subject you can (weather, movies, sports) or excuse yourself and seek less contentious companionship elsewhere.
Strategic moments alone are a holiday gift: helping in the kitchen, taking a walk around the block, scanning the host’s bookcase, engaging in child’s play. All are good ways to avoid the button-pushers and loudmouths.
Being kind doesn’t mean being a pushover. If we encounter someone who’s clearly malevolent or entrenched in hate or bigotry, the kind response may be to exit stage left. Arguing with your relatives who deny the Holocaust or, say, what happened at Sandy Hook just fuels them. You’re not going to change their minds — not with logic, not with data or proof. You’ll just be feeding their craving for attention and their desire to spread hate and divisiveness. Say something if you wish, but it’s perfectly fine to just turn and walk away.
Most of our relatives aren’t that way, though. That’s something to be thankful for.
Think of the upcoming holiday as a precursor to a challenging year. One in which we might make mistakes, say the wrong things or occasionally lose our cool. We just need to remind ourselves that we’re a work in progress and that we’ll try to learn from each slip. We’re working toward kindness because we want to and it’s better for our own health. It gets easier with practice.