There is a growing public outcry about the way patrons are currently treating waitstaff.
As restaurants struggle to reopen, including with limited staff, diners are acting out. They are impatient; they want immediate service. They are rude and disrespectful. One restaurant gave its staff a day off to commemorate “kindness” because of the level of unkindness they had encountered. That event created license for many others to share their own recent restaurant experiences.
These events are, simply stated, uncalled for by any definition of decency. But, here is the question that I am confronting: the disrespect in eateries is not isolated. Many people are, in this “post-Pandemic” stage, acting out in workplaces, in medical facilities, among friends and with family members. Travelers are acting out on flights. We are seeing political debates that are vituperative at every turn. Have you experienced this on our roads and highways?
Anger seems to be right on the tip of most people’s tongues and behaviors.
Interestingly, I am doing a tweet-a-thon with Crayola (I hope you’ll join in on July 21 at 5:00 p.m) that is focused on kindness and inclusion. This educational company is seeing the need to focus on the importance of kindness. Their five excellent questions prepared for the tweet-a-thon allow us to probe what to do about the absence of kindness and ways to build it back. See below for some suggestions in advance. Join us #CrayolaEduChat.
Here is a fact: Kindness in many settings (not all to be sure; think Miami and the building collapse in Surfside) has gone on vacation.
What does this mean? And why is this happening? And what does it mean for students and educators and parents as schools reopened?
I am worried that when schools reopen, the unkindness displayed in restaurants (among other spots) will be evident in our educational institutions. Students will struggle with the valuable and fair rules teachers seek to impose and they will be unkind to each other. Students in some districts can use previously unacceptable language (F…You) because they have become used to this and similar speech while spending the Pandemic at home and in isolation or online with friends and strangers, and schools have notified educators not to respond through punishment or discipline. To be sure, we need to educate not isolate and send students to the principal.
The absence of kindness in educational settings will add to the already extant issues on reopening, including physical and psychological well-being. Educators who are already stressed about reopening may well be exposed to rude and disrespectful behavior from students, parents, fellow educators and administrators. Think of educators as the “wait-staff” of learning — they are on the front lines. There are few barriers between educators and students, and classroom management will be a real issue if educators are or sense that they are being mistreated. And students who were bullied and teased may experience an uptick that was invisible or not present in online learning.
Now, I want to be clear: a lack of kindness is likely not fully intentional. The Pandemic has affected us. While it is nice to recite that kindness is easier than meanness, the outbursts of late are driven at least in part by the traumatic and stressful events keyed to the Pandemic and some beyond too. We have lived with social isolation and masks. We have had debates about vaccines. We have witnessed and experienced illness and death. We have lived, and continue to live, with uncertainty. With the rising cases and the Delta among other variants, we are seeing more COVID cases and even those vaccinated are experiencing breakthrough infections. We have witnessed discrimination of a wide ranging sort.
Ponder what happens when people who have been repressed or isolated suddenly experience freedom. Consider these examples: students who have had to live by strict rules and no opportunities to experience life in their teenage years arrive at college and act out. Really act out. These young people are like a stuck drawer: once the drawer in opened, they participate in all sorts of wild and risky behavior. The new freedom literally goes to their head. They drink; they do drugs; they flaunt rules; they do what they couldn’t do in more tempered and monitored ways in their teenage years.
In many ways, the lifting of COVID mandates in like unsticking a stuck drawer that has been stuck for 18 months. And, we are acting out. We have lost our manners. We have lost our boundaries. We have lost our social constraints. We are so glad to be “free” that we are doing the emotional equivalent of running naked in the streets. We are released from inhibition and demanding that all we lost be restored instantly. And, waiting is not an option.
Here’s another way of thinking about this. For many (not all), the Pandemic has felt like deprivation in a wide range of ways: limited social engagement; limited touch; limited in person contact with people who have provided grounding (family; religious leaders; friends; children (adult children and grandchildren)); limited access to work except online (and for frontline workers); limited food, housing and employment for some; limited travel and limited opportunities to find a space and place in which to find peace and quiet.
When people are deprived of water and then presented with it, they tend to gulp it down. While sipping would be safer and wiser, the access to water feels like it fills a deep need and one drenches one’s insides with it. Call it our trauma response to deprivation: we overindulge. We dysregulate. We overindulge.
I am not excusing acting rudely or acting badly toward others. The absence of kindness is not a way for civilized people to engage. But, mandating kindness doesn’t work either.
Instead, what we need to do is explain to folks why their lack of kindness is occurring. Folks who didn’t act out pre-Pandemic who are now acting act, need for us to share why this is happening. We need to help folks reflect on their new behavior. We have to show them the value of restraint and regulation. We need to help them understand why our times have made it so much more facile to now be unkind. We have to share the causes of unkindness to obtain any large scale shift — and it will not occur overnight.
And, we need to help educators and others whose work requires that they engage with others not take the unkindness personally. This is immensely difficult given the world in which we are living and the high level of tension, stress, anxiety and trauma. It is easier than usual to take outbursts personally. We have become less accustomed to engaging with others; we have lost the “thicker” skin we used to have. We are all exposed. So the unkindness strikes us hard and close to our core.
It is easy to say: don’t take it personally. I know this from years of leadership where people are far from kind on many occasions. With social media, people feel welcome, encouraged even, to take personal pot-shots and there is little one can do about it. Think Trolls. We just get hurt and angry and often the unkindness brings out unkindness in us as a way of self-protecting.
Breathe. Pause. Do unto others as you want them to do to you. May seem trite to say but it is true. Show kindness at every turn and for every occasion. Even when difficult, let kindness be the watchword of the moment. Let it overflow. Let it be delivered even when not deserved.
I get we are not saints. But we need to help everyone reset the engagement criteria we use in our world. And we can do that by role modeling every minute of every day. We can watch out words. We can listen well. We can stretch out an arm or a hand or touch a shoulder. We can ask others to walk in our shoes and we look at the shoes in which others are walking.
Wait-staff, educators, employers, medical personnel, flight attendants: here is my advice. Display kindness every minute of every day in every setting and with every person. It won’t be easy. It won’t always feel good. It won’t be an immediate cure-all. And it will often seem undeserved.
But, if you role model and display kindness two things can happen: (1) We can get people’s mirror neurons to activate and if this happens, kindness becomes catching; and (2) we can sleep at night knowing we are contributing to the wellness of our communities.
So surround yourself with supportive and kind folks in the meanwhile — family and friends and strangers. Then display kindness and watch and wait. We aren’t wired for meanness. We can reset the behavior clock if we work on it. And, what choice do we have? We can’t accept a lack of kindness as a new social norm. That would be a disaster.
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.