“What would you do if the ambassador you worked for, got himself drunk at an official function?”
That was a question posed to me when, at the age of 25, I applied to the Swedish foreign service. Having passed the written test twice (yes, I’m bragging), I’d been invited for a series of interviews at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm.
I don’t recall what my answer was, but suffice to say I didn’t get in. And that was probably a lucky escape, for me as well as for the Swedish Foreign Service. As my family would readily agree, diplomacy is not a skill with which I’m generally associated.
Stroking other people’s egos, obeying protocol and being pleasant to everyone? No, that’s not part of my toolbox, which is also one of the reasons why I never followed family tradition and sought a career in book publishing. Stroking egos, I’ve observed from a comfortable distance, is very much part of a publisher/editor’s job. With me in charge of looking after authors, the publishing house would go bust.
Still, I’d like to think I am a reasonably friendly person, despite my temper and lack of patience.
“Yes, but when you dislike someone, it shows,” my husband says, “you just can’t hide it.”
“No, darling, that’s just my resting bitch face.”
It’s funny how often our self-image jars with other people’s perceptions of us. Take empathy, for example. Having once trained in conflict resolution and mediation, which require a lot of empathic skills, I’d say I do empathy rather well.
“Ha,” laughs my husband, “how come the kids always come to me, not you, when they’ve hurt themselves?”
My family’s opinion aside, I still maintain I’m an empathic person. And kind. Sort of. At least I believe in being kind, not sugary-sweet kind, but kind as in compassionate and accepting of others. Unfortunately, kindness seems to have little currency in our competitive, success-driven society.
Sure, we teach our children to be kind to their peers, but do we model that behaviour ourselves? Not as much as I think we could. And it’s only a matter of time before our children call out the discrepancy between what we’re telling them to be and do, and the behaviours and attitudes we exhibit.
Just look at what’s going on in British politics these days. In recent weeks if not months, the general tone of political discourse has been fraught with contempt, ridicule and personal attacks, temperaments that spill over into the public arena, and into people’s homes. As a result, our sense of community, of mutual belonging, is slowly but surely eroding from underneath our feet and it’s anyone’s guess where it will end, but I’m sure it won’t be pretty.
It may not be cool to be kind, and it may not get you to the top of the career ladder, but kindness, I believe, is a vastly underrated commodity in today’s world. Some people seem to confuse kindness with self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom or with weakness but that’s not what kindness is. If anything kindness is intrinsically bound up with self-respect, assertiveness and courage.
There’s strength in kindness too, and being kind doesn’t mean you have to be a ‘good girl’ or that you can’t still be a rebel; of course, you can. Ultimately, it is when we speak and act from our heart rather than our mind that kindness finds its way into the world.