- Steve Nguyen, PhD
Small Acts of Kindness Can Matter So Much
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Kindness From a Stranger
This is the first time I’ve shared this story. It’s not earth-shattering, traumatic, or dramatic, just a small act of kindness that meant a lot to me at a time when I REALLY needed an extra serving of kindness.
Many years ago, during a time period when I was looking for a job and was really struggling (financially, mentally, and emotionally), my wife and I went to a fast casual restaurant chain that serves home-style meals. This one lets you choose the food items (entree, side items, etc.) you like and the person behind the counter places those items onto your plate.
When I told the restaurant employee which food items I wanted, he did something that meant so much to me. He smiled and placed a little extra serving of the entree item on my plate and said, “It looks like you could use a little bit extra.”
I’m not sure if it was because I’m thin and tend to lose weight when I’m stressed, so I might have looked even thinner that day than I naturally am. I’ve always been thin, and have been this way my whole life. Maybe something prompted him to show some kindness toward me. Whatever the reason, I was so grateful to have received it that day.
I thanked him and we paid for our food. We enjoyed our early dinner and afterward went to our car. On the drive back to our place, I started to cry. My wife was really concerned and thought something was terribly wrong. I collected myself and began sharing with her about that simple, small act of kindness from a stranger at the restaurant. As I talked and recalled how he was kind to me, I starting getting choked up again with emotions.
It was a small act of kindness, but it came at a time and on a day when I so desperately needed some kindness and I got it, not from family or friends but, from a complete stranger. I’m fairly sure that nice man had no idea I really needed some kindness that day, but he gave it anyway.
Kindness Is Contagious
In a Scientific American article, psychology professor Jamil Zaki (2016) wrote that kindness is contagious and it can cascade across people. “[A]n individual’s kindness can . . . trigger people to spread positivity.”
In their studies, Zaki and his colleagues found that people do not “even need to see others do anything in order to catch their kindness.” In a follow-up study, people were asked to read stories about the suffering of homeless individuals. “After each story, they saw what they believed was the average level of empathy past participants had felt in response to its protagonist. Some people learned that their peers cared a great deal, and others learned they were pretty callous.” At the end of the study, participants were given a $1 bonus, and the chance to give as much of it as they wanted to a local homeless shelter. “People who believed others had felt empathy for the homeless cared more themselves, and also donated twice as much as people who believed others had felt little empathy.”
In Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness, he explained that empathy “refers to several different ways we respond to each other. These include identifying what others feel (cognitive empathy), sharing their emotions (emotional empathy), and wishing to improve their experiences (empathic concern)” (p. 4).
“We catch one another’s empathy” (Zaki, 2019, p. 121).
“We are not merely individuals fighting to empathize in a world of cruelty. We are also communities, families, companies, teams, towns, and nations that can build kindness into our culture, turning it into people’s first option” (Zaki, 2019, p. 122).
“Empathy’s most important role . . . is to inspire kindness: our tendency to help each other” (Zaki, 2019, p. 4).
Here’s another story about the kindness of strangers from Reader’s Digest: “While going through a divorce, my mother fretted over her new worries: no income, the same bills, and no way to afford groceries. It was around this time that she started finding boxes of food outside our door every morning. This went on for months until she was able to land a job. We never did find out who it was who left the groceries for us, but they truly saved our lives.” —Jamie Boleyn, Emmett, Idaho
In reflecting back on that day at the restaurant, perhaps the employee identified (from my face and body language) what I was feeling and wished to improve my dining experience as well as maybe brightening up my day. And he acted on his empathy by being kind and offering me just a bit more food on my plate. At the time, although it was really tough, I had unemployment income that helped us survive. BUT, I was feeling really down and even ashamed that I could not provide for me and my wife. So I kept to myself as the stress, anxiety, guilt, and so many other worries piled on. That small act of kindness helped me make it through that day and gave me hope to keep going, even when things felt overwhelming.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small is ever wasted.” -Aesop
Kindness In Organizations
In her book, People Not Paperclips: Putting the human back into Human Resources, Kath Howard asserts that in our organizations and workplaces, we have forgotten to treat people with kindness and compassion that they deserve. Instead, we treat them more like paperclips, commodities that are easily replaced. She says we can be wholehearted, authentic, and caring and connect with people and their needs in a truly human way.
She writes, “Lead by example in displaying compassion, no matter what ‘level’ of the organisation you’re employed at offer help and support to others, and condolences when they’re going through a hard time. This creates a ripple effect of kindness. People who are treated with kindness, often seek to ‘pay it forward’ and to offer kindness to others in return” (Howard, 2020, p. 98).
Kindness Toward Strangers
And one last thing, don’t rush through life or always be in a hurry. Despite having good intentions to be kind and help others, when we’re pressed for time and in a rush, we tend to bypass, overlook, or even step over a person in need to meet our goal. As the classic 1973 experiment by social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson revealed, even seminary students on their way to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (a Bible story about helping strangers in need) failed to stop to help someone in need when they were in a hurry versus when they were not in a hurry (Lyons-Padilla, n.d.).
“A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going. Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. (Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!)” (Darley & Batson, 1973, p. 107).
Takeaway: In your life and daily interactions with other human beings, be more empathetic, and remember to be kind. You never know how a simple, small act of kindness can matter so much to someone who’s really hurting.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108.
Howard, K. (2020). People Not Paperclips: Putting the human back into Human Resources. Practical Inspiration Publishing.
Lyons-Padilla, S. (n.d.). Take Time to Be a Good Samaritan. Stanford SPARQ. https://sparq.stanford.edu/solutions/take-time-be-good-samaritan
Reader’s Digest Editors. (2021, April 10). 30 Stories About the Touching Kindness of Strangers That’ll Make You Tear Up. https://www.rd.com/article/kindness-strangers/
Zaki, J. (2016, July 26). Kindness Contagion: Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/kindness-contagion/
Zaki, J. (2019). The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Crown.
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