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Thoughtless Niceness

In erstwhile eras, when “corona” referred to astronomical halos and terrestrial beverages, certain behavior was, in some circles, considered nice. Small talk in grocery stores, Girl Scout cookies sold door-to-door, surprise birthday parties - all assorted opportunities for spontaneous social interaction.

The (apparent) intent of these events was always benevolent - and many participants derived as genuine of joy as most of us can claim to. The sudden shift to pandemic life was particularly challenging for those whose identity centered on communal engagement - but it also offered an opportunity for an unprecedented introspection into what we do and why.

Sometimes niceness has good impact - it warms the heart and inspires the mind. Other times, niceness may be harmful - it can make people uncomfortable, unhappy, and even spread deadly diseases.

Niceness that causes good is called kindness. Niceness that doesn’t sadly lacks a clear label - people may call it fake or inconsiderate. I’ll label it as “thoughtless niceness.”

Kindness is a virtue - and virtues require work. In this case the specific work needed is to envision the needs and desires of others - to build empathy. When that work is missing, “good deeds” can still be good - but are more likely to be pleasant for the deliverer than the receiver. The do-gooder may claim to only be thinking of others, but outside observers can see otherwise.

Why be nice, if not to cause broader good? For the same reason as much of our social interaction - to signal ones worth and values, and to scratch personal psychological itches. These are things we all do instinctively - thoughtlessly. They are not necessarily bad, but they are by definition selfish, and if it is all we do then it becomes difficult to build a functioning society.

Paper clips, emoji, coffee, and a smartphone

And as we think of thoughtlessness, it is natural to consider our usage of technology. Usage of tools has always been about scaling and accelerating effort - in recent years this acceleration was applied to social interaction, further compounded by the pandemic.

I’m a fan of technology - it’s how I’m sharing my thoughts with you. But, as in past, I encourage mindful use of tools that scale thought, lest we find they override it instead. Without glass separating us, people are fairly likely to find at least some empathy for one another, even if they also have large differences. Technology need not change that - but as with kindness, it takes some effort to think of the person on the other side of the screen.

Not every unbidden social interaction is thoughtless - but to insist without knowing the other party well enough is to skirt with selfishness. Folks derive energy and joy in a variety of ways - what works for you won’t work for everyone. And - that’s fine! As long as both parties also don’t impose.

Many of the more presumptive social rituals are default behavior - pre-pandemic. Though I’m skeptical that behavior will shift en masse, I’m hopeful that an increase in empathy could be a silver lining of recent times. The next time you do something nice, reflect on the situation and your motivation. Are you doing this for the other person, or youself?