The Importance Of Being Nice

When everyone’s afraid it helps to be cheerful and kind

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Image credit: Die Welt

We humans are hardwired for groupthink. It doesn’t take much to make us afraid, and when we’re fearful our limited intellects shut down. We obey the dictates of purported authority figures and we seek to punish those we feel aren’t conforming sufficiently. It comforts us to do what we’re told, whereas thinking independently can create uncomfortable ambiguity.

It’s not difficult to see how easily this tips over into terrible outcomes. For those of us with memories longer than last night’s binge viewing, Rwanda and the Kenyan election violence springs immediately to mind, as do the massacres in Bosnia and today’s continued slaughter of Rohingya in Burma. It’s too easy for fear to turn into violence as people seek relief from their terror by taking action against anyone deemed “wrong.”

Today we’re told to practice “social distancing” and in practice that means we begin to regard all those around us as potential causes of harm. Pass by me too closely and you may kill me! We’re fearful and suspicious of those we encounter as we scurry to and from supermarkets clutching essential supplies.

This is deeply unhealthy from a psychological perspective. We already live in fragmented societies; now we’re creating much deeper and more dangerous mistrust, on government orders.

The last time this happened in Europe, millions perished.

As there’s no way to change human nature and no way to combat the follies of politicians desperate to be seen “to be doing something,” I think it’s urgent that we each as individuals do what we can to lower the temperature and decrease the level of mass hysteria before things turn very ugly indeed.

To that end, on my daily walk here in Lausanne, I’m making it a point to smile at everyone I see and say a cheerful bonjour! It’s surprising how effective such a small gesture can be. Quite often I see a worried face look up and then relax a little. Sometimes I even get a smile in return.

It may sound trivial but civilization depends on countless small acts of mutual acknowledgement and kindness. By treating those I encounter as fellow human beings rather than objects to be avoided, I’m easing the psychological tension that’s been created by politicians telling us all to treat each other like plague ships passing in the night.

It doesn’t matter whether you think social distancing plays a real role in slowing down the spread of this much-hyped infection or whether it is to all intents and purposes pointless for 97% of the population. What does matter is that unless we can find ways to affirm each other’s humanity we’ll drift further and further into psychological isolation and that’s not a trend any thoughtful person would wish to encourage.

So I’d like to suggest we all pause for a moment and consider what we can each do to lessen the psychological damage that’s being seeded across our populations. Perhaps it’s a daily conversation over Skype with a neighbor who is so fearful she remains indoors 24/7 and sits watching sensationalist media reports that simply amplify her fear to outrageous proportions. Perhaps it is a cheery smile and “hello there” to the people we pass on the streets. Perhaps it’s a gesture, such as pausing to smell a newly-blossomed flower or admire the buds on a nearby tree. All these are signals that say “actually, things aren’t quite as bad as the mass media would have us believe.” All these things can reassure those who’ve been stampeded into near-hysteria by endless context-free single-issue reportage.

If we don’t consciously treat each other like decent human beings, the future is going to be far bleaker than any over-wrought projection of mortality rates.

So let’s remember the power of being nice to each other. It matters more today than it’s done for a long, long time.

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