Measuring the kindness of strangers

Nations and online users are being tracked on their kindness toward strangers. One country in particular, Singapore, actively promotes it.

AP Photo
People gather on a beach to form a giant heart on Jan. 22, 2017, in Carlsbad, Calif. The heart was formed to kick off The Great Kindness Challenge, a nationwide kindness movement with over 10 million students performing half a billion acts of kindness.

How many people honored this year’s World Kindness Day on Nov. 13, preferably with a random act of kindness? How many even knew about it? By one indicator, probably fewer than in previous years.

The proportion of people who “helped a stranger” went down last year, according to the latest World Giving Index. It fell 1.8 percentage points, with 80 countries seeing a decline compared to 52 that saw an increase.

Public indifference toward World Kindness Day may be excused by the fact that the annual celebration has only been around fewer than 20 years. Perhaps even younger is the science of measuring kindness (if it can be measured at all).

Earlier this year, Microsoft released a survey of 14 countries tracking the level of empathy, respect, and dignity used in digital platforms, such as social media and online forums. Its “digital civility index” found 50 percent of online users are “extremely or very” worried about online etiquette and risks, including cyberbullying, public shaming, and hate speech. Countries with the highest levels of perceived digital civility were the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia. Those with the lowest were South Africa, Mexico, and Russia.

Microsoft now offers courses on online safety in its stores. Among its recommendations: “Live the Golden Rule by acting with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treating everyone they connect with online with dignity and respect.”

Perhaps no country is more aware of promoting kindness than Singapore. Its government has long tried to shape social behavior, such as gum chewing, sometimes with measures widely viewed as disproportionate. But after a recent burst of shaming bad behavior on a website called STOMP, it launched a Kindness Movement in 1997. The aim, according to Dr. William Wan, general secretary of the organization, is to make helping strangers more “accepted and sometimes even expected social behavior.”

“When people share videos on social media of kind acts that people do, or when newspapers report on these cases, it creates an environment where doing so does not seem so unusual after all,” he says.

Yet Singapore officials admit that graciousness toward others cannot be ordered up. It must come from the heart and is built out of humility, integrity, and patience. They say the country’s success should not be defined by how much people earn or possess but by how well they treat each other in daily interactions, especially online.

When the use of social media becomes antisocial, it may be tempting to censor it. Yet the better antidote is to smother it with acts of kindness, especially between strangers. With enough of that, World Kindness Day will not simply be a nudge to act kindly but become a true celebration of it.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial had an incorrect date for the start of the Kindness Movement.]

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