“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” How many of us have scrolled past this quote on Instagram or Pinterest? It was a social media platitude for years, but those final two words took on new poignancy – after the fact – when it emerged Caroline Flack had shared them months before taking her own life.
“Anything … we can literally choose to be anything,” Flack captioned the image on Instagram, less than a week before she was arrested at home following a row with her boyfriend Lewis Burton. Her plea for kindness went largely unheard.
In the hours after news of Flack’s death broke, thousands of tweets were posted with the words ‘Be Kind’ – a reminder, in the most basic sense, that we need to treat each other better. The motto seemed to be a cry for help and change, a collective realisation that things had gone too far.
T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Be Kind’ went on sale online within hours of Flack’s death. Comedian Leigh Francis (aka Keith Lemon, a friend of the presenter) designed a top bearing her face and those words, sold at £25, with 100% of profits going to charity. Even Primark joined in, prompting cries it was “cashing in on a motto that has become synonymous with a high profile suicide”.
On Facebook, there was a renewed effort from women to be kinder to one another, too – one viral trend encouraged them to tag and compliment their friends. “It’s time for us to fix each other’s crowns,” read someone’s caption. The ‘Be Kind’ motto also appeared as ‘ribbons’ on profile pictures.
It was everywhere. But some have questioned this renewed fervous of Brits to promote the message. Can sharing two words – or wearing them across our chests – actually make us kinder? Or is it a well-meaning yet essentially empty promise thrown into the social media void?
Dr Tom Farsides, a social psychologist at University of Sussex, takes a sceptical view. “Events like this can go either way or have no effect,” he says. Whether a motto can really make people kinder depends on several factors, he says.
Some people are more predisposed to kindness genetically – for this group, a ‘Be Kind’ reminder might nudge behaviour, while for others it won’t make the slightest difference. It also depends on a person’s motivation for sharing the message – which could be a cry for people to be nicer to them, more than a commitment to be kinder to others. Unkindness often comes from a place of insecurity. Conversely, being kind – not just receiving kindness – has been found to alleviate feelings of loneliness among some of society’s most vulnerable.
“Many of these [posts] will have stemmed from sincere but short-lived motivations,” says Dr Farsides. And in some cases, he adds, clicking that ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button can make subsequent kindness less likely, because of an ‘I’ve done my bit’ mentality. There are examples of people tweeting #BeKind in one message and slating someone in the next; and abuse aimed at high profile figures posted from profiles with a ‘Be Kind’ ‘ribbon’.
Sharing these posts won’t necessarily make us instantly kinder, but it does put kindness at the centre of our focus, says therapist and Counselling Directory member, Pam Custers. “If we could keep this kindness notion in the forefront of how we operate and if we can harness that, it would be an incredibly powerful thing,” she says.
“If we could keep this kindness notion in the forefront of how we operate and harness that, it would be an incredibly powerful thing.”
– Therapist Pam Custers
Kindness requires action
We need to commit to kindness, adds Farsides. There needs to be action. “If you start off with that commitment of ‘I want to be a kinder person’ you can change your behaviour,” he says. Think of it like weight training – you’re building your compassion ‘muscle’.
The key is promoting it in your life in small, yet manageable, ways: signing up to become a volunteer, making a mental note to be friendly on public transport, checking in on people who seem unhappy, or choosing to be there when someone needs you. Translated online, this could mean standing up for others being trolled, using the ‘report’ button when you witness abuse, and choosing not to spread negative messages.
If you commit, actually commit to kinder acts, “you can absolutely be more kind,” says Farsides. The benefits are mutual. Research suggests when you’re kind to others, your brain’s pleasure and reward centres light up, as if you were the recipient of the good deed. Not only do you get that “helper’s high”, you also diminish feelings of isolation. If you open the door for someone, for example, that person may smile and say ‘thank you’. Custers refers to this as a “feedback loop of positivity” as the chances are, they’ll pay it forward.
Dr Farsides caveats that if you do make a commitment to being kind, you’re probably quite a nice person to begin with.
On that logic, he adds: “If you’re a bit of a dick, you might not commit to it.”
What goes around, comes back around
Emotion is considered contagious – if you smile at someone on your way to work, chances are they’ll smile back. If you frown, they might do the same. A study by sociologist Nicholas Christakis, from Yale University, revealed that if a person became happier in their life, a friend living close by had a 25% higher chance of becoming happy – and their romantic partner would be happier too.
This ‘emotional contagion’ translates online – as you may have experienced. A study of almost 700,000 Facebook users found when good things popped up in people’s feeds, they tended to write more positive social media posts.
Those who viewed more negative posts ended up writing more sad or angry posts. The study’s author Jeff Hancock, from Stanford University, said the results suggest that, just like in real life, “emotions can move through networks through contagion”.
If you make a commitment to be kind, can telling others encourage a kindness contagion, of sorts? Not necessarily. Dr Farsides reckons it could trigger more unkindness. “The downside of social media activity is you see a lot of people reacting badly to it [kindness],” he says. If you post a good deed you’ve done, there may be a fair few cries of “virtue signalling” – that you’re making it all about you. “Anybody that tries to, or even seems to be trying to be kind, will get accusations,” he continues. “We’re suspicious of them because it’s exploited.”
We don’t have to tell people, though. We just need to act. “We know that by integrating kindness in how we work, our relationships, in society as a whole, it actually empowers people,” says Custers. “Kindness connects us. Nastiness or cruel behaviour disconnects us and isolates us.”
Treat people online as you would offline
Making a commitment to being kinder should have a specific focus within your online world. It’s needed – a 2019 YouGov poll of 2,000 people in the UK found one in four had experienced cyberbullying, with 18- to 24-year-olds most likely to face abuse online.
People need to learn the impact of their words. Lauren Pemberton-Nelson, communications coordinator for Glitch, a not-for-profit working to end online abuse, says people don’t need to be best friends [online]: “You can still hold politicians to account and critique people, but do it without being offensive.”
Air grievances constructively. “Even if we disagree with someone, it’s about disagreeing in a respectful way,” says Custers. “We don’t have to annihilate them in the process.”
Then, you’ll avoid being left with what Custers calls an “emotional hangover”, that distaste you feel with yourself after crossing the line with a friend, family member or someone you’ve never even met. Being kinder online can also mean sending those who are bullied words of support, like the response to Callum Manning, a 13-year-old from South Shields, bullied for loving books.
Ultimately, kindness should be considered one of your emotional five-a-day. “You know you need to eat five-a-day to be healthy? Well, kindness is one of your emotional needs, it’s one of your five-a-day – and we need to do it on a daily basis,” says Custers.
Share the quote, wear the T-shirt – but act, too. “It doesn’t have to be a big and onerous task, it can be small. Once we know we’re going to commit to kindness – an act of kindness each day – it will transform our own lives and it will transform the lives of others.”