Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Communication in Random Acts of Kindness

August 1, 2009
Interpersonal Communication

Although they may be impromptu and brief, random acts of kindness should be viewed as meaningful interactions.Random acts of kindness are gestures that are completed for a stranger or acquaintance with the expectation that nothing will be received in return. Random acts of kindness should not make either individual feel uncomfortable. Examples include holding the door for someone, returning a shopping cart for a stranger in a parking lot, helping a neighbor find her dog, letting a stranger ahead of you in line, helping a stranger change a tire, and helping another customer retrieve an item from a top shelf at a grocery store. In many instances strangers and acquaintances must work quickly to offer help and be helped. This is accomplished using verbal and nonverbal communication.

To complete random acts of kindness we must be aware of our surroundings. This includes making a decision about whether or not to help another person. In addition, before a random act of kindness can be performed the other person needs to be receptive to being helped. Recently I visited a public library with my four children. Another mother asked me if I needed help getting my kids upstairs for a children's library program. I was not receptive to her kind gesture because I thought that she was viewing me as not having control of my kids and I was embarrassed. Certainly she may not have viewed me negatively. I was caught off guard and quickly responded with “No thanks, I've got it.” She perceived that I was in need of help and that I would be open to her offer. A random act of kindness would have occurred if I had accepted her offer. I could have responded with a smile and said, “Sure, can you help my daughter up the stairs?” It would then have been appropriate for us to engage in small talk and for me to thank her for her help.

When completing random acts of kindness or if you find yourself the recipient of a random act of kindness, consider the following:

  • Perception: What was it about the other person that made you perceive that he or she needed help and would be receptive to a random act of kindness? For example, while shopping at a mall you notice that another shopper drops her glove. You quickly pick up the glove and hand it to her saying, “Is this your glove?” You have stopped what you were doing and approached the other shopper. In this instance, based on your perceptions, you believe that this stranger would be appreciative of your random act of kindness.
  • Eye-contact: Did you share direct eye-contact with the other person? If so, did this help to enhance the interaction? Did you or the other person avoid eye-contact? Depending on the situation, eye contact can enhance the interaction and help establish rapport between strangers. For example, direct eye gaze when thanking a stranger for holding an elevator door can show sincere appreciation.
  • Proxemics: How did you and the other person use space? Did you consider the use of space appropriate and comfortable? Why or why not? For example, a random act of kindness that I've noticed at restaurants is strangers giving up their seats or moving over on a bench when waiting to be seated.
  • Facial expressions: Did you smile or use other facial expressions to ease potential awkwardness in the interaction? Was the other person receptive to your random act of kindness?
  • Verbal communication: Even when holding a door for a stranger is there an expectation that the other person will respond with a simple “Thank You”? If you hold the door for another person and he or she does not say “thank you” do you notice?
  • Reciprocal Interactions: Consider the reciprocal nature of random acts of kindness. One cold winter morning one of my students decided to scrap the ice off her neighbor's car in the parking lot of their apartment building before she scraped the snow off her car. Her neighbor came out their apartment building and started scraping snow of my student's car. In many instances, random acts of kindness illustrate the reciprocal nature of our interactions.

Random acts of kindness begin with being aware of those around you and perceiving the need for help. In our fast-paced society, random acts of kindness should not be overlooked. Face-to-face communication between strangers and acquaintances should be viewed as an essential aspect of our society. As we go about our daily lives--shopping, eating out, running errands, or vacationing--we have the potential to come in contact with a variety of people. Random acts of kindness highlight the notion that even though a gesture may be brief and potentially viewed as meaningless, these gestures are completed because strangers and acquaintances genuinely care about the well-being of others around them.

About the author (s)

Elizabeth Tolman

South Dakota State University

Associate Professor