Has America Totally Lost the Instinct to “Be Nice”?

“[Let] love [be] without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.  [Be] kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; …”  Romans 12: 9-10

In the vein of “passing it forward”, I’m a firm believer in how simple acts of kindness can have positive effects on people and enrich our social bonds with one another.  Greeting strangers whose paths we cross each day falls under this category.  Yet, my personal experiences seem to indicate that many people have created a barrier between themselves and their fellow human beings.  One that sends a message of “leave me alone.  I don’t need your kindness”.

My friend Jean over at her Snoring Dog blog had an enlightening and entertaining discussion about the life of an introvert.  I don’t think anyone who read her post on this however was left feeling that introverts are anti-social in ways that prevent them from a quick smile or brief greeting towards others they may encounter when away from their “personal space” at home or at work.

We all appreciate quiet time and being alone to put us at ease and gather our thoughts.  We deliberately avoid social contacts to enhance this sensation.   But we don’t live in a vacuum and when life requires that we put ourselves out there in the public domain, we can’t carry with us what Jean refers to as thethin, worn and stained cubicle wall” that serves as a protective barrier while we are at work.

When people who are kind enough to acknowledge our existence with a polite “good morning” or friendly smile, we don’t need to telegraph through our body language signals that say leave me alone, unless of course we find ourselves walking around after receiving some terrible upsetting news.  But this would be the exception and not the norm.

Ignoring others sends the wrong signal


The only other exemption are for those who live in crowded urban areas where encounters with other human beings occur at such a rate that makes it impossible to acknowledge everyone, like on a busy city sidewalk at lunch hour or shopping holidays in malls.  This is the modern lifestyle many find themselves in today as part of large urban populations.  Under these circumstances it is acceptable to look beyond them, realizing that they too cannot react as if you and they were the only one’s at social distances that allows you both to be more civil to one another.

But there are times when these crowded conditions don’t impose on us and we find ourselves in a less hurried scenario where contact with other people in close proximity to us encourages us to be civil, and not ignore their presence, if for only one brief moment.  Such incidences occur when we are in a uncrowded store and meandering down an aisle as someone who is doing the same approaches us.  I run into numerous people in the morning when I walk my dog each day who are out doing the same thing.  These are times when the pressures of family and work are most absent and our minds are not burdened to the point that distracts us when others pass by.

A simple non-verbal acknowledgement like a smile upon making eye contact is sufficient under most of these circumstances.  To do nothing as if they were some transparent figure that our visual senses couldn’t detect is a social slight that only embitter people who may already hold anti-social attitudes towards most other human beings.


A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.   – William Arthur Ward


So why do I even raise such a seemingly small measure of discontent in a world where suicide bombers, anarchists and right-wing militia members kill others with a deep-seated hate that no act of kindness will likely prevent them from pursuing their “anointed task” in this world?  Such small acts of kindness are too easily drowned out today in the bitter political partisanship that ideologues engage in.  Not only at the lowest levels with every one who has learned to send spam e-mails or snipe from the safety of their on-line blogs, but at the highest levels of leadership where so-called intelligent people are expected to serve as role models for the rest of us.

At the height of each election cycle the media ads that each campaign puts out for public consumption get more vicious and devious than the ones before.  Rather than impress us with an honest resumé of their own, the strategy instead portrays their opponent adversarially in 30-second political sound bites over the airwaves.

Even more stunning is a study by UC, Berkley Psychologist Paul Piff that found “living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people.  …  It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”   Could there be a correlation between increased levels of incivility and the growing income disparity between the haves and the have-nots?

Paul’s message in Romans 12 that I referenced above implored the newly formed christian community not to think of themselves more highly than others, but to use “sober judgment” when they engage other human beings.

Each of us have a gift, he says, that we should give wholeheartedly of and Paul cites one of those gifts as the ability to encourage others.  Why?  Well I can only speak for myself but I think it’s safe to assume that when we treat others with respect we set a pattern of behavior in motion that has positive outcomes for all sides.  By being civil in all situations, even those brief passing moments when you encounter a stranger in an unhurried situation, you are encouraging a healthy relationship amongst those who you share space with on this tiny blue dot in the universe.  By encouraging others to think positively about human relationships we diminish the power of hate-filled individuals.

I may have taken a long route to connect dots from the simple acts of kindness in everyday, routine human interactions to show how a world lacking or even devoid of them can lead to social injustices.   But the distance between being civil and reducing hatred in this world may not be that far apart.  Such a void puts the only species on earth at odds with each other over differences that can usually be worked out but where the will to do so is too often missing.  We seem more bent on our own destruction over what makes us different rather than coming together for the sake of survival by elevating what common bonds we share.

Keeping this thought in mind, how difficult will it be next time you come face to face with an individual in a casual setting – where a quick assessment of them may be unfavorable – will you try to overcome your desire to say nothing and ignore them?  Will you use “sober judgment” at the time or will you allow some random, unfavorable image  to control your behavior?


Ask yourself: Have you been kind today? Make kindness your daily modus operandi and change your world. Annie Lennox   


12 responses to “Has America Totally Lost the Instinct to “Be Nice”?

  1. I teach my kids this ACT all the time.

    It’s amazing the amount of children from all socioeconomic back rounds running around with an abundance of disrespect.

    Great piece LB!

    • Thanks CW. One of the items mentioned in Romans 12 is perhaps the toughest thing anyone is asked to do – show kindness to those who you perceive as your enemy. I think once we achieve this level of kindness then civility will have reached a new plateau. But the ethnocentricity that each culture possesses is a big stumbling block for this.

      Good to hear from you.

  2. Larry, I love this post! I think I told you this once but I have a sign in my kitchen “because nice matters”. I am sometimes appalled by how people just think their lives are so much more important than others or their opinions are the only ones that matter. Judgment, the need to be right, the right to condemn, the need to put oneself over the needs of others can make me so cynical. But I refuse. I am still going to see the good in people first. Sometimes there is no good and that is a tough lesson, but that can’t stop us all from looking and practicing kindness. That is not a religious mandate but a human one.

  3. Wow Larry….how revolutionary, random acts of kindness. The Beatles were right, what the world needs now is Love. The Buddhist practice of Lovingkindness goes a long way in getting us there.

  4. I always wave at every neighbor when I see them when I walk by in the morning going out to the foothills. I try to make serious eye contact with check-out people and seriously inquire about their day. I am however an evil bitch on the phone with incompetent people. I know, I know, but I get so impatient when people can’t get the information down correctly. My debit card was rejected yesterday and I had to call the bank, and then redo the entire delivery inquiry/answer format just because a clerk couldn’t enter the expiration date correctly. Geesh…But I notice that people here in Las Cruces are expecially nice in always saying hello and smiling in parking lots and so forth. I try to do the same.

    • Yes, when simple mistakes occur it’s hard to be patient, especially when your pressed for time. Solution: Allow yourself time. Anticipate delays and mistakes. I’m getting a little better at expecting to stand in lines for more than a few minutes when I go shopping. It’s like a reward when things go well.

  5. I’m the first to admit it – I need to try harder. I’m not the overtly friendly type that’s for certain. But once in a while I surprise myself. I definitely have changed for the better since my 20s and 30s, though. Thank you for the mention, Larry!

    • I’m no great success story myself Jean. I have to work on it like anyone else. It seems that aging makes it tougher for me now than when I was younger but it is none-the-less a principle I will always see as essential.

  6. I think being mean takes more effort and energy than being nice..and gosh, I am soooooo short of energy these days.

  7. You know being an old fart…I can remember when a lot of this ugliness started….the “I’m ok, U rae ok” genration……the “ME” generation…..when everything became about me and tp Hell with everyone else…..oh sorry, the 80’s…..

  8. Pingback: Leadership Thought #383 – You Get To Decide How You Will Behave « Ed Robinson's Blog·

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