Have you ever really thought about the reasons why you treat people the way you do? If you are a relatively nice person (and I believe most people are trying to do the best that they can in their lives – or at the very least, don’t go out of their way to be mean), then perhaps you have not needed to have a reason for treating people with kindness. You’ve just done it.
But how many of our actions are motivated by 100% altruism? We can always do better in this area, but first maybe we should assess where we are on the spectrum. In other words, we should really look at the reasons why we choose to be nice.
One day I was on Main Street in my little home town, waiting in a long line of cars stopped at a red light. I noticed ahead there was a car waiting to turn out of a McDonald’s parking lot, but the way the traffic was going, he would be waiting for a very long time if no one gave him a spot to merge in. I decided to let the man go in front of me. As I stopped and waved him in, the man driving the car saw the opening and just drove. There was no wave, no nod, no mouthing the words “Thank you.” No acknowledgment whatsoever. Nothing.
My first response was frustration and irritation for the man’s ingratitude. The internal dialogue began. He literally would have sat there forever if someone didn’t let him enter the lane of traffic in front of him because the McDonald’s was right on the corner where the stoplight was, so when the light turned red, the cars coming from the west would quickly pile up and again block that exit. And there were too many cars coming for enough of them to pass before the light turned red again, and he would be perpetually blocked in. Yet this man showed no gratitude at all for my act of random kindness.
Now driving behind the man, I noticed myself getting more and more disgusted with this ungrateful little man who wouldn’t so much as lift a pinkie finger to say thank you. But as my irritation grew, I had an epiphany. What was the reason that I initially chose to let this car go in front of me? Was I in dire need for a small dose of recognition for my actions? Did I need a shot of gratitude from a random stranger, and therefore I let him go in front of me? Was my quota for being the recipient of a thank you or a friendly wave just one acknowledgment shy, so I HAD to let this man in and get the expected numbers?
Well, no. Of course not. Initially, I saw the man sitting there waiting, and having sat in a similar position before, hopelessly trying to turn out into eternal lines of traffic, I genuinely wanted to help make his day a little better. That is, until he snubbed me. The ungrateful turd!
Why is it that our reasoning for being kind can turn so quickly like that? I decided I was going to choose to not need that man’s gratitude or acknowledgment for having let him in. I hadn’t really needed it before he pulled out. Why would I suddenly be needing it after? Would it have been nice for him to acknowledge my kindness? Sure! But that wasn’t the reason I had offered it. I didn’t want that stranger to have any control over my feelings that morning. Especially since he likely had no clue I was driving behind him with frustration for his ingratitude. People who are really egocentric typically don’t. So I dismissed his lack of courtesy, and drove to work the rest of the way in peace.
Think about the reasons you are nice to people. Work at being nice just for the purpose of being nice; of brightening someone’s day; of lightening someone’s burden, and without any hope or need for acknowledgment for how wonderful your actions may have been or how much effort you might have expended on their behalf.
Sure, it’s really good to have people acknowledge what we do for them. And gratitude is a dying attribute anymore in our society, so I am not saying it shouldn’t be offered more commonly than it is. But ultimately we need to work at being nice simply for the sake of being nice. At the end of the day, we will be happier if we aren’t filled with contempt for all the ingratitude we experienced after a day of extending unacknowledged kindness.