How kind are your words?
Kindness is as essential to our writing as the letters we type, and this is as true for higher education as it is for any sector. Here’s why.
Kindness in language is the recognition that no matter to whom we are speaking or writing, they are of the same kind as we are, and deserving of the same human consideration that we would like to receive.”
Some years ago I was running a writing retreat for a group of business people in the Scottish Highlands. We were reaching the end of the week and the radio was on in the kitchen at breakfast time. It was Desert Island Discs. The subject, an American soprano, was speaking about her experiences of travelling the world.
She mentioned how often she had experienced the kindness of strangers and the phrase struck a chord. I looked around the room and it occurred to me that this was what we had all been experiencing as we had grown to know one another over the course of the week. The kindness of strangers.
Their writing on the course had taken some people to places of deep personal feeling. In sharing what they had written they had risked exposure and made themselves vulnerable. Yet the response of the group had been unfailingly supportive. No one had judged them and everyone had been touched by their courage and candour.
Later that summer I heard the psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He happened to mention kindness, and went on to explain that the word we use today to mean compassion or care has its origin in the word ‘kin’ or being of the same kind.
So when, in times past, we left our village or tribe to venture into the wider world, if we met someone else of our own kind we were predisposed to look out for, or be kind to, one another. (In a short book he has co-written called On Kindness, Phillips also makes the point that as human beings we connect most fundamentally through our vulnerability – to which the natural response is kindness.)
Since then, the need for kindness has become the theme to which I constantly return when I speak or write about the way we communicate. I even write a blog called A Few Kind Words.
What I mean is this: kindness in language is the recognition that no matter to whom we are speaking or writing, they are of the same kind as we are, and deserving of the same human consideration that we would like to receive. Vulnerability, meanwhile, means being prepared to reveal our humanity. The two, as Phillips points out, are inextricably linked.
In other words, if we wish what we say to make a connection, we must be able to write with personality and empathy. Personality is what makes us sound human; empathy is what enables us to imagine how what we say will be received by another human.
The opposite of both, which manifests all too often in the world of work, and dare I suggest that higher education is no less culpable here than any other sector, is the use of language that is unkind, that is to say impersonal, inhuman or even alienating.
At its most basic, it comes down to this simple test: would you want to have to read what you have just written? Or to put it another way: how kind are your words?