The Sweet and the Sour

First it was some malarky about blue birds of happiness and now it’s about the sweetness of random acts of kindness. As cynical as she may claim to be, Ann’s blogs continue to project a rather hefty Pollyanna-ish outlook onto the world.

Not to be a perpetual wet blanket, but I once again feel compelled to provide some sort of corrective balance to this overt “sunny side of the street” nonsense.

Of course, it is totally understandable how easily one can get caught up in the seemingly sacred notion that acts of kindness bring joy and happiness into an otherwise bleak world.  And, there’s a ton of support for such a belief.  We even have a Random Acts of Kindness Day (which originated in New Zealand and is “celebrated” in the U.S. on February 17). And then there’s the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation  which encourages us to become RAKivists (Random Acts of Kindness activists):

[RAKtivists] live and breathe kindness, share knowledge and lead by example. You can tell where they’ve been because they leave a trail of warm-and-fuzzy feelings in their wake… Think of RAKtivists like kindness ambassadors—and, like all ambassadors, they’re a part of an active, global community who are helping to make kindness the norm

Just one example of the plethora of lists of suggested random acts of kindness one can find on the Internet. Note that “complimenting someone” is on the list.

Giving a compliment is a gesture of kindness frequently appearing in the umpteen lists of suggestions that can be found on line. Here are just three examples from those lists:

Compliment the first three people you talk to today.

While you’re out, compliment a parent on how well-behaved their child is

Find opportunities to give compliments. It costs nothing, takes no time, and could make someone’s entire day. Don’t just think it. Say it.

According to a piece appearing in Psychology Today, compliments are very special acts of kindness. They are little “gifts of love” that tell a person that he or she is worthy of notice. Clearly, compliments are a RAKtivist’s dream weapon. How could you go wrong with this simple, quick, cheap, and sure-fire way to evoke warm-and-fuzzy feelings all around?

RAKivist Cheatsheet?

Let me tell you how you could go wrong. While complimenting others may bring you warm-and-fuzzy feelings, these feelings may not be reciprocated by those you have randomly targeted for your “kindness.” In fact, there is reason to believe that the recipients of your well-intended gestures of kindness will find your actions to be more of a burden than a blessing.

Don’t just take my word for it. Back in my grad student days I came across a research paper entitled On Gift-Bearing Others: Consequences of Compliments in Everyday Life by Charles Edgley and Ronny Turner, who was on my dissertation committee at Colorado State University. Their research team unobtrusively observed 245 encounters where compliments were given. At the end of each encounter recipients of the compliments were interviewed and asked about their their reactions to the compliment. The findings suggest that rather than evoking positive feelings, compliments more often resulted in bitter-sweet feelings. They found six major reasons people felt uncomfortable when complimented:

1) Reciprocity. The felt obligation to return a compliment. (30%)
2) Modesty. The felt need to neutralize the compliment to avoid coming off as “conceited:” (30% )
3) Ulterior motive. Suspicion that incipient manipulation lay behind the compliment. (20%)
4) Impending criticism. Apprehension that giving the compliment was prelude to criticism. (10% )
5) Evaluation by a judge. Sitting in judgment by a “superior:” (5%)
6) Upping the ante. Being expected to continue or excel the level of praised performance. (5%)

Of course random acts of kindness are not restricted to compliments, but I would imagine that the principle can be applied to other forms of “kindness.” Whether randomly giving flowers to others, opening doors for them, or giving them loaves of homemade bread, be aware that you may not necessarily be leaving a trail of warm-and-fuzzy feelings in your wake. But then again, if it makes you feel warm and fuzzy maybe it’s worth the discomfort you are foisting on others.

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