On Kindness, Computers and Greek Wisdom

I spotted a tweet yesterday from @QueensClassics which read ‘The Greeks have a word for it: “@LiddellAndScott: κοινονοημοσύνη, ἡ (koinonoēmosynē)
—regard for the feelings of others”‘.

If you read Homer you find many, many examples of regard for the feelings of others. Virtually every time a visitor pops by for a chat or a stranger approaches there is a handsome welcome with drinks, food, friendly words. Eventually the real business gets under way, but only after the important business of ensuring the guest has been properly treated on arrival has been transacted. The entirety of the Odyssey can be read as being about treating people the right way. The most moving section of the Iliad is arguably when Priam puts himself at the mercy of his son Hector’s killer, Achilles. Achilles, who has been angry for most of the poem as a result of Agamemnon’s lack of regard for his feelings, welcomes Priam in the right way and shows due regard for the old king’s feelings. They weep together. Achilles responds to the wretched old man’s requests with kindness. The Greeks had a word for it.

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Bertel Thorvaldsen Priam Pleads with Achilles for Hector’s Body, 1815

A week or two ago I was treated unkindly. I shall be deliberately oblique about the incident to protect privacy. I had my two young children with me, who were not behaving immaculately. I did not quite have the right paperwork with me, but I had good reason to hope that the bureaucrat on duty that day would be helpful to me. You see, I could have just done my entire little paperwork job online where the fact that I did not have the right document to hand would not have mattered as I could have just clicked a button to say that all was in order. The fact that I couldn’t put my hand on the correct piece of paper did not mean that all was not in order. This was what I hoped I could convince the bureaucrat in person, after all Priam had convinced Achilles to hand over his son’s body by visiting him in person.

Silly me.

She was not impressed. She did not try to help and did not try to see things from my side. I offered to provide proof in the form of a phone call to the company who had posted the paperwork late, to no avail. I had encountered not one of those Computer says No situations, but the opposite, Human says No. The computer would have blindly accepted the information I gave it, and said Yes. The human, whose job in the community I have actively chosen to support, decided that on balance it was more than her job was worth to take me on trust, to give me a break while my children fought with each other over their new library books and while I tried to hold back my tears of frustration at both their behaviour and hers.

My missing paperwork came in the post the next day, just as the person on the phone had assured me it would. It took me more than a week for me to find the time and inclination to return to the staffed position to sort out my bureaucratic problem, and all this time I resisted doing it online.

When I did go back, the same woman was working. She recognised me. After a polite greeting and exchange of information, I told her that she had been unkind to me on the previous occasion, that she had treated me with a lack of humanity. She had seen my distress and the behaviour of my children and she had done nothing to try and help me or alleviate my distress in any way. I spoke to her for several minutes on this topic. I was audibly upset, but my language was very calm, measured and polite. I did not want to cause her distress; I did not say that she had been the cause of my distress, as she hadn’t, not really, but I did explain that she could have helped alleviate my distress but she chose not to. She chose not to be kind. She chose not to be kind because she thought she might be putting her job at risk. A job which a computer is already doing more efficiently than she is, as I pointed out.

It is important for services to be available face-to-face. It is important for humans to interact with each other. It is important that we do not let computers take over every aspect of our lives. It is important, as Homer knew and wrote so eloquently, that we treat one another with kindness, respect, humanity.

To all of you who may be thinking, ‘How silly of her to think it would be okay going along with the wrong paperwork!’, I would like to suggest that you consider how often your actions are motivated by kindness. Are they more frequently motivated by something else? Is it sometimes fear? Shame? Do those things stop you from being kind? Just think.

We must all be kind, we must practise kindness, and we must above all show our children that we practise kindness, always, because if we do not do this, there is no hope for our common humanity. The Greeks had a word for it.

End Note

The bureaucratic woman did apologise to me, and assured me that she meant it. She gave me the paperwork I needed and I thanked her, explaining that I would always rather deal with a person than a computer. We parted smiling.

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