Gradually it comes into focus, when you step back from the routine. Words and acts of kindness – even very small – are part of what makes us human and makes our lives liveable. The Carnegie UK Trust/Joseph Rowntree Foundation collaboration to find out more – noticing, checking out the language used and meaning embedded in acts of kindness – is small but highly significant. It follows their work, respectively, on wellbeing and an enabling state, and on risk, trust and relationships in everyday life. And it fits with a growing concern for how we interact with each other.
The Scottish Government wants to put dignity and respect at the centre of a new social security system. Local fairness and tackling poverty commissions in Renfrewshire, Fife, Dundee have found addressing stigma is an essential building block for ‘higher’ objectives. If your main contact outside the home on a typical day is with the health centre receptionist, the school office or hanging on the phone to DWP or HMRC to sort out benefits or tax credits, the quality of those conversations really matters. Do we feel treated fairly, listened to, treated as capable adults? Or frustrated and patronised? The difference made by a kind word, a smile or the ability to calm a fraught situation is real, even if a tricky issue can’t be resolved quickly.
In between the close ties of family and friendship, and a sea of unknown people, lies a middle group of people we interact with because we have to or because we choose to. These aren’t strangers. If we offer to help with shopping, a lift from the station, a loan of a book or CD or money, this wouldn’t be a random act devoid of significance. We know from the Liveable Lives study in three diverse parts of Glasgow that giving and receiving ordinary acts of help brings us into risky terrain: Am I over-stepping the mark? Can I offer help in return? Am I showing vulnerability or will I offend someone’s sense of independence?
There aren’t easy answers here. But the Kinder Communities report by Zoe Ferguson brings us closer to naming and reflecting on such questions. The willingness of various organisations to look afresh at how staff and volunteers interact with citizens, and how kinder connections can be made, will help others to do the same. If our working cultures are getting in the way, how best to change them? If people lack skills, time or supportive managers, the same question applies. And if feedback loops are broken, preventing us from hearing about the simple changes that people would value, how best to mend them?
Recently I read a quote from an academic on a fast-track to promotion. She summed up her career so far: “The least rated virtue in academia is kindness”. This might also be true in the places we work and live. If we think it matters, we can usually do something about it – and it might involve accepting that offer of help we thought we didn’t need.
About The Author
Dr. Jim McCormick is Associate Director Scotland to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) and co-founder of research partnership McCormick-McDowell.
Jim was writing on the Carnegie UK Trust blog which you can follow here: http://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/category/blog/