A few days ago I was in line at a Starbuck’s drive through. As I pulled up to the window to pay, the barista told me the car in front of me had covered my order. Though the generous driver and I didn’t exchange a single word, s/he delivered a very big message. One that I passed on by paying for the order of the car behind me. I was charmed by the random act of kindness and happy to pass it on. The message I heard and hoped to perpetuate was that the world is full of generosity and kindness. Too often, you just can’t see it unless you’re in the right place at the right time. The whole experience led me to reflect on how messages can shape shift by virtue of the listener, the feelings evoked, and the behavior that follows.

We humans tend to scan the world for data that supports our opinions. That means someone in a bad mood or feeling defensive may decide or “hear” that the car in front of them had money to throw away or they are irresponsible with their finances. Someone else who was sad and needing a little pick me up may read the act as one of hopefulness and verification that the world is a generous place. Yet another person may be spending their last $4 on a latte as they search for a little hit of happiness in a desperate world. Their free drink becomes a signal of sorts that they may interpret in a variety of ways.

The point is that my $9 contribution to the collective good was a small price to pay to lift up someone’s spirits, help them out, or inspire them. But no matter how much positivity or optimism I send their way with my random act of kindness, I have no control over how they receive the message.

The same is true of pretty much every email or text you send, every conversation you have, and every voicemail you leave. You are only half of the process. The way your message is received is largely out of your hands.

You can, however, exert some control over your response when you are the one receiving the message. When you notice an immediate hostile or negative response, pause for a moment and check in with yourself. Are you really responding to the content of the message or is something else going on? You have a great deal of power in deciding how to “hear” a message and I invite you to use it.

To be successful, random acts of kindness require both a sender and a receiver. Whichever role you play, please remember that words matter and you’re in control of how you engage.

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson



P.S. When I offered to pay for the order behind me, the barista told me that I was the sixth in this chain of generosity. While that inspired me, I also remembered that we never really know how far our random acts of kindness will go.


Cover of Amber Nelson's book, "Talk to Me"

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