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being/human – the why


This essay is based on the talk I was asked to give at BadEMFest18 in South Africa. When I submitted my pitch I suggested I could talk about ‘something to do with paediatrics… or anything really, I’m happy to help out‘. Then I opened the DM from the team and found that I was given the near impossible challenge of reminding the delegates ‘How to be Kind‘. In order to distill my thoughts down to a succinct 15 minutes I thought I’d let you in on what I’ve been thinking about. What I thought would be a thousand words or so blew out into 5000, hence I’ll break it up into a couple of posts. This is the WHY. I’ll follow up with the HOW tomorrow.

What is kindness?

Kindness can be really tough to define.

Perhaps it is easier to talk about the opposite of kindness? – the rudeness we display towards others, the curtness, the incivility. We’ve seen how disruptive doctors make it hard to work together as a cohesive team. We’ve seen angry relatives jab fingers at a nurse for not being at their beck and call. We’ve seen in-patient unit registrars roll their eyes when a ‘fresh out of medical school’ intern stammers through their first referral. Someone shouting at you for making a mistake is going to hamper your work, but researchers have also found that just being uncivil also has a negative impact on performance. In a simulation-based study, making derogatory comments about the subjects medical training led to a marked drop-off in successful outcome measures. Perhaps this another example of the stereotype threat at work? Doctors and nurses are told they are no good and so they try too hard and make mistakes.  Whilst the researchers suggested coming up with ways which “… offer a means to mitigate the adverse consequences of behaviors that, unfortunately, cannot be prevented…”  in the next  post I am going to try to offer some practical guidance for those that want to at least try.

So is ‘being kind’ just not being rude? We might walk past as a junior member of the team gets berated for a mistake, not wanting to get involved. How about showing a little kindness?  I think kindness is moving beyond the casual indifference of an empty glance, towards making a connection, a bond, however momentary, with another human. It is what Archbishop Tutu would call ubuntu.

A culture of kindness

Creating a positive workplace culture, leading to more acts of kindness, organizational citizenship behaviours (OCB) in the parlance of psychosocial research, is not just the responsibility of the individual. It is the responsibility of the organization itself. Researchers at Google found that when their teams actions were rooted in fairness, trust and cooperation more OCB’s occurred. But when rude or uncivil behaviours were witnessed in an authority figure there was a drop in prosocial acts within the team. It seems that kindness is contagious. One positive act begets another to form a potential virtuous circle of goodness.  You may have seen the film Pay it Forward, with Haley Joel Osment, that takes this principle to Hollywood levels of excess.

In hospitals there tends to be a culture of apathy, of “it’s not my job“, as if we are inured to the human suffering around us. Meal trays are placed just inches out of reach, requests for another blanket are ignored. If we just stop for a moment and recognize that the human being making the request is somebody’s mother/father/daughter/son we might jolt ourselves out of this apathy. It can certainly be a challenge to be kind if you are the only one doing it but that does not mean you should not try. Like the anti-vaxxer that is determined to not immunize their child against measles, the apathetic bystander, by not being kind, allows bad behaviour to spread.

Don’t ‘nice guys finish last’?

It’s important not to conflate being nice with being kind. Nicety is a societal construct designed to give power to those who do not have any. We are nice because we want people to like us. We are nice because we crave external validation. We are kind because we want to be, not for anyone else, but because it is the right thing to do.

You might think that a kindness is an act of unselfishness  but such prosocial behaviours can be beneficial to the giver as well as the receiver. We know that small, everyday acts can lead to a sense of greater connectedness with loved ones or colleagues, especially if they are freely given, without obligation. It makes sense that if you feel happy you are more likely to be kind but the opposite is also true. Just performing an act of kindness, whatever you feel inside, can also improve your mood.

There is much to be said, also, of the evolutionary benefits of kindness. With Richard Dawkins assertion that we are all here to help pass on genetic material from one generation to the next much we should consider the ‘unselfish gene‘.


The evolutionary benefits of kindness

Consider that the etymological derivation of the word ‘kindness’ is ‘kin-ness’. Performing an act of kindness was seen as performing an act that drew the tribe together, perpetuating the line. How could this be so?

Kin altruism 

Whilst Darwin may have written about the survival of the fittest he believed that humankind was a profoundly social and caring species. It seems that kindness to ones kin, even the weakest of the tribe, could allow the passage of shared genetic material. Experimentally this has been demonstrated  by showing that men are more likely to donate to charities using images of children that have been digitally altered to resemble their own. They think they are helping one of their own tribe.


When we roamed the wilds as hairy hunter-gatherers mutual coordination would have been the only way to bring down big game. This is the “I’ll scratch your back…” approach to kindness done purely out of explicit self-interest.

Reciprocal altruism

Mutualism implies an action carried out for a common goal whereas sometimes people are kind in the hope that karmic balance will restored at some point in the future – I perform I kind act today in the hope that someone else will perform a kind act for me in the future.

Competitive altruism

And finally there is the proposition that being kind is, in part, a way of displaying ones status, in the sense of noblesse oblige or, using a more popular frame of reference, with great power comes great responsibility.


So then, it all boils down to this… We know kindness is good for others (and ourselves) so can we teach it? I believe we can.  Children begin their lives as naturally kind beings but as they grow into doctors and nurses and paramedics something happens to them. The introduction of a kindness curriculum to younger children promotes prosocial behaviour. Perhaps this is why the Sesame Street Workshop introduced kindness as the theme for its 47th (2017) season. So what can we do? We can role-model kind behaviour but I want to be more explicit about how we can act kind. More on that next time.


If you woke up one day and found that you were the only person left in the entire world, you still need to be kind. We think of being kind as something we do to others – our patients, our colleagues, our loved ones – but it is also something we need to do for, and to, ourselves. If we cannot be kind to ourselves, then what?

Some Footnotes and Further Reading


About Time (2013) dir Richard Curtis – Please can everyone watch this, if not for Rachel McAdams, then for the lesson of the last fifteen minutes.

Le fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain (2001) dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet – One of my all time top ten films ever. You will forget it is in French as you are drawn into the world of Amelie Poulain, a young waitress who only wants to do good.

Cinderella (2015) dir Kenneth Branagh – Have courage and be kind – ’nuff said.

Pay it Forward (2000) dir. Mimi Leder – Haley Joel Osment, playing a less creepy but just as intense a child as he did in The Sixth Sense, tries to change the world.



Brown, Derren – HappyWhat appears to be a bright and colourful book on the happiness is really a deep philosophical dive into Stoicism in the modern era. 

Frankl, Viktor – Man’s Search for MeaningThis is one of those books that most of us have heard of but never read. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy.

Jeffers, Oliver – Here we areI’ve loved all of his work, especially The Day the Crayons Quit and this book is no exception. It’s a simple yet beautifully drawn instruction manual for a new life.

McCloud, Carol – Have you filled a bucket today?Sometimes a childrens books can put in 32 pages what a professional philosopher cannot put in 400.

Palacio, R.P – WonderA couple of people had recommended this book to me and I read it in a weekend. I only cried twice.

Thackeray, W.M. – Vanity FairThis 1848 collected serial of life in England during and after the Napoleonic wars is one of the few books I re-read every couple of years. Everyone knows of the anti-hero, Becky Sharpe, but to me Dobbin is the true hero.



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1 thought on “being/human – the why”

  1. Andrew- thank you for highlighting a really important issue in this post. The Cinderella quote ‘Have courage and be Kind’ is one my personal mottos!