"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (I Corinthians13:4-7)
A lot of times we think of love as requiring grand gestures: big impressive acts, deeds,
"Love is kind" reminds us that love also happens in the small. Kindness is simple and
quiet. We experience kindness when someone provides something useful that we didn't
even realize we were lacking.
Put another way, kindness is about noticing. It takes effort to notice another person's
preferences, interests, ambitions, and delights. We have to make effort to stop talking,
to quiet our need to express ourselves, and to simply listen and observe.
And then we have to take the extra step of finding ways to translate that listening and
observation into tangible communication that you've noticed.
Gary Chapman's book The Five Love Languages offers a helpful mental model for
guiding our noticing. He suggests that there are five main ways in which people prefer
to receive and express care:
Words of Affirmation
Acts of Service
Have you taken notice of how the people you care about prefer to receive love? Have
you communicated that notice by offering care to them in their preferred style?
Let's now add another layer of complexity to this discussion. Let's also consider the
other person's relationship proximity to us.
Psychologist Robin Dunbar has spent decades exploring the capacity for relationship
formation. His "Dunbar number" of 150 has been famously cited as an optimal
organizational size. But more interesting has been his recent work where he teases out
layers of concentric friendships.
A recent article from The Atlantic summarizes how the layers of friendships work:
"The innermost layer of 1.5 is [the most intimate]; clearly that has to do with your romantic relationships."
"The next layer of five is your shoulders-to-cry-on friendships. They are the ones who will drop everything to support us when our world falls apart."
"The 15 layer includes the previous five, and your core social partners. They are our main social companions, so they provide the context for having fun times. They also provide the main circle for exchange of child care. We trust them enough to leave our children with them."
"The next layer up, at 50, is your big-weekend-barbecue people."
"And the 150 layer is your weddings and funerals group who would come to your once-in-a-lifetime event."
(image and text copied from The Atlantic and shared under fair use copyright law)
The key insight from the article is how these layers develop:
"The layers come about primarily because the time we have for social interaction is not
infinite. You have to decide how to invest that time, bearing in mind that the strength of
relationships is directly correlated with how much time and effort we give them."
An implication of this is that our expressions of care and notice will vary in intensity and appropriateness from level to level. Expressions of kindness that are quite appropriate for the circle of fifteen might seem awkward, strange, and creepy to people in the circle of 500. For instance, hugs and embraces might be expected for your close friends and best friends, but not so appropriate for acquaintances and certainly not for people in the 1500 group or beyond.
For people in the circle of 150, kindness could launch into other things: small thoughtful gifts, words spoken aptly, a needed service provided, a timely hug. But the root of all of these comes in making the effort to be aware of the other and to notice.
For the people beyond the circle of 1500, kindness may very simply be acknowledgment of the other person's humanity: looking them in the eye when you talk with them, offering a warm greeting, engaging in polite small talk. It might also come in the small courtesies: holding the door for someone who has their hands full, stopping to help someone pick up dropped items, a moment of eye contact, a smile, a brief hello is often all it takes.
The mindset is one of honoring the humanity of the other person and giving a few moments of precious attention. Many people feel unseen, unnoticed, ignored. They feel like they're a backdrop or a background character in someone else's story. Taking just a moment to notice other people can alleviate their burdens in ways you never expected.
So how to cultivate noticing?
Identify the 10-15 people who matter most to you. Write their names on a card that you can slip in your wallet. Could you name their primary love language? Make it a goal each day to express care to one person on that list in their preferred love language.
Think about people in your circle of 120-150 friends. Make it a goal each day to discover one new thing about one of them.
Look for opportunities to simply acknowledge the humanity of people you encounter through the day. Make eye contact with people you interact with and greet them. If it's someone you interact with regularly, simply make an effort to learn their name so that you can greet them when next you see them.