Is the "milk of human kindness" going off?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Emotional Labour – Client Interaction. What of the milk of human kindness?
Baldrick: Oh, but Mr B, whatever happened to the milk of human kindness?
Edmund: It’s gone off, sorry!
(Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, by Richard Curtis & Ben Elton, 1994)
Even genetically, “…nice guys finish last” (Dawkins), so one may understandably begin to ask oneself, what’s the point of niceness? However, humans have always been social beings and while the animal world is full of inspiring altruistic examples (Geese honking and flying in formation; Rabbits thumping when a predator approaches; Vampire Bats sharing their prey) and humans are no exception. From a standpoint of "safety in numbers", we too have evolved with remnants of a collective mind, for example the infectious yawn to keep the “pack” sleeping at the same time.
Kindness is easy to do, highly pleasurable to both giver and recipient and can be bestowed on a great many people. And yet, anecdotal observations reflect a prediction I made in "The Leader's Guide to Resilience" - 2 years into the Global Pandemic, instead of the collective applause on Thursdays, the gratitude and celebration of key workers, and the pulling together to keep the workplaces going, the milk of human kindness seems to be running dry.
"We did everything to avoid long term furlough for individuals, and made up all salaries to 100%, and now our staff are saying they don't want to come back to the office."
"People are picking and choosing whether they deliver in person - citing "shielding" for the times they aren't keen...and yet they'll attend in person on the times they want to."
"...they've moved away or got a dog, and now they are saying that's why they can't come back in...we're not asking them to work in the office full time, just once or twice a week..."
"I'm not sure why people are happy to to come back after maternity leave, but have used the changes in the pandemic to decide their original contracts don't count."
A few of my previous articles have not always been kind on organisations, but of course the world is far more complex, and I wanted to explore why the "great resignation" seems a little bit more like "the great reticence".
Of COURSE the pandemic changed things
To get this out of the way right now, I am not suggesting we liken the pandemic to maternity leave. Covid-19 has brought death, destruction and tragic devastation, and for those whose lives were horrifically touched, I am so saddened. And while I had my own run-ins with the coronavirus (not personally, but my dad - now recovered - caught it while he was in hospital, and I know many whose loved ones were not so lucky), I am OK. I have a roof, a family and an income - which I maintained without assistance.
...and I am not sure that I'm alone in that.
Further, it seems to me, that the people to whom the quotes refer, were perhaps like me.
Now, again, I appreciate that we do not know what goes on behind closed doors, so rather than pass judgment, I thought I would look at the reasons why the milk of human kindness, the community spirit and gratitude so evident at the start of 2020 may be going sour.
People are in survival mode
In "The Leader's Guide to Resilience" based on work by Nishikawa, I proposed a model of resilience which I felt was an accurate description of how this "strength" presented.
In the first instance, a the point of crisis, resilience would come through adrenaline, perhaps even boosted by the novelty of the situation. This would be the first stage of survival to "bounce back". However, on the "rebound", community spirit, resources, and things on which we might have leant on for support during the initial crisis, would be depleted...throwing us back into a state of "surviving" once again. In addition there would be some acknowledgment of the scarcity of resources leading perhaps to conflict and competition.
Phillips and Taylor in their book "On Kindness" suggest that from a psychoanalytic perspective, kindness is associated with attachment, the activity of a parent to a vulnerable child. They go on to suggest that this can mean there is a public perception of kindness as "weakness" - and there is indeed much anecdotal evidence of the proverbial "I'll never help anyone again" after hurt caused by particularly bad experiences - When we are in "survival mode" (and this can be caused by emotional and physical hurt) we are selfish.
Survival mode is simply another description of the body's physiological response to threat..."stress"! The brain sends a signal to the body preparing it to fight or fly, cortisol (the stress hormone) is released and this narrows our focus, it re-directs the blood and activity to the vital organs, we may sweat, our heart rate rises, we struggle to sleep and to eat and this persists until the threat passes...in the case of the pandemic...the uncertainty and fear is not yet on its way out.
Worse still, because it is still possible to function while under this pressure, many of us get used to a state of "chronic stress" and as such begin to normalise not sleeping or not eating properly...which leads to a vicious cycle making us feel less and less great...and in turn making us more irritable and albeit unconsciously, self protective.
Isolation has meant we have stopped practicing meeting social norms
Through isolation we have not necessarily had the opportunity to think of others, nor even consider how we might ourselves be perceived. If we wanted to spend all day in our pajamas, as long as we weren't on a zoom call (and even then it might have been "bottoms optional") - we neither had to keep up appearances nor worry about the judgment of others.
As we begin to venture back into society, perhaps a little mindset shift is needed from "I was in my pants all day because I found that acceptable in my own house" to "What is the general acceptance in the areas of society I am returning to?"...while our home is indeed our castle, the same is not true of the communal areas we share.
We can win a fight by building ourselves up or breaking others down
Returning to an aspect of the "survival mode" of the earlier paragraph, research in leadership struggles and competition preventing harmonious co-existence (eg. Sheriff and many more), and many case studies have documented how scarcity can result in aggression. As I have outlined in an earlier article, if we do not find ourselves on the bottom rung of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we are motivated to attain it...however attainment
Oliver James's Affluenza sums up the negative nature of the consumerist society with a contrast between two cultures, where one looks at the possessions of her neighbour and thinks “…wow, next year if I work hard, I can earn that too.”, and the other thinks “…next year I’ll have something better…and I’ll see that you lose yours!” Perhaps through exhaustion, or through lack of inspiration, or maybe we're fed up, or we don't even realise we're doing it, we might start taking advantage of others who have what we covet to boost ourselves up, without thinking whether their generosity is able to sustain it.
Bringing back kindness by starting with some self-compassion
The first, and most difficult element, is to avoid the vicious cycle of - it was done to me, so now it's fair game to do it to others...
i) Quick affirmations to self soothe
I have two affirmations that I use when things get tough - not so that I can forget just who did what in my vicinity, but rather so that I don't allow the negativity to drag me down. The first is the more formal "even if I cannot control anything else, I can control my breathing" - whilst counting 4 beats to breathe in and 4 out, and the second is one I use to reassure my blind dog whenever she gets spooked on her walk "You're ok, you're ok"...but you need to imagine it said with the same inflexion as "Who's a good girl!?"...and when I say that to myself, yes in that voice, I genuinely feel a lot better.
When I feel better I have a clearer head to think and respond rather than instinctively react.
ii) Remember we have a CHOICE over our responses
On that...the reason why (healthy) self-soothing interventions such as this can be so helpful is because they also remind us we have agency over what happens next. Take the example of my dog, sometimes I can get a little frustrated when I want to go faster, but she doesn't...and lets not forget she cannot see and she's 15... As such, while I might perceive that her dwadling has caused my frustration, the two are not necessarily linked...my dog is smelling the flowers...and I'm doing frustration!!! When looking at it in this way, it seems unfair to expect her to change her behaviour just because I'm struggling to manage mine!!
Therefore, but recognising that I cannot expect her to change to make me feel better...and why should I, using my own methods (as above), I often find enough clarity to look at other ways I can resolve the situation.
iii) Being "kind" does not necessarily mean doing anything extra!
Sometimes we may confuse being kind with "solving problems" or "lending a hand" or "reaching out". To return to the original comments that prompted this piece - in those cases what was being expected was nothing additional, rather simply a fulfilment of a work contract that had been agreed at the time when the word "unprecedented" wasn't in common parlance, and "Corona" was the name of a drink.
Sometimes being kind is simply doing what is expected or agreed to. It may be choosing to say nothing rather than troll or add a mean comment. And yes of course, it might be offering money, time or support - but again no-one is asking you for more than you can afford to give.
So this week, my intention is to be kind - whether it's to myself, or to others, and remind myself that it's really not asking all that much at all.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt