Monday, February 8, 2010

Do I Have To? Understanding the Difference Between Obligation and Random Acts of Kindness

After posting the Good Housekeeping advertisement a few weeks ago I couldn’t stop thinking about some of the guidelines…and how they didn’t seem all that bad. For example, “Be happy to see him.” The alternative being you are unhappy to see him which I don’t think will go over well in the long term, so pretty sound advice that.

The ad only sounds so ridiculous because of the not-so-subtle sense of obligation that is implied in these “suggestions.” Perhaps if these were labeled as such we could write them off as infantile chauvinist fantasies and laugh about it. But they’re not advertised as suggestions, they’re advertised as rules….and only bad wives break the rules. All of a sudden you have to satisfy a checklist of do’s and don’ts to be considered a loving spouse, and that is a disturbing (not to mention terribly limiting and boring) concept to say the least.

Here are some other not-so-bad suggestions the ad makes: Have dinner ready. Greet him with a warm smile. Listen to him. Don’t greet him with complaints and problems. I would like these things. You would probably like these things. If I had a husband I would assume that he would also like these things.

Women (and men) often express their love for another person in these way but there’s a distinction that has to be made; we should be doing these things for someone because we want to and not because we feel obligated by a formulaic gender role.

For example, I hardly ever cook. Not because I don’t enjoy it but because I only know how to cook three things and they all require cheese and heavy cream. One simply can not live off of a steady diet of cheese and cream so cooking has become a sporadic occasion . That being said, if I wanted to do something really nice for someone, make some effort to show that I cared, cooking a nice dinner might be a good option.

Another example: one of my best friends always opens the door for me. I have to admit that at first it was annoying because he would often have to jump in front to manage it (my hips take up about ¾ the width of an average door…thanks biology). Eventually I got used to it. We have been friends eight years now and he still does it every single time.

Why? I am sure that after eight years he has no doubt in his mind that I am capable of opening a door. He certainly isn’t trying to impress me so he can get in my pants later. And while he is extremely polite and respectful he is far from the conservative southern gentleman who thinks it is his masculine duty to open the door for every woman he sees.

About two years into our friendship I finally asked him. He said he does it because it is his way of showing affection for me. He knows that I don’t expect it and that makes it even better. Even though I can open my own door he wants to do something that will make me happy and this is one way he can do that.

And he’s right. It does make me happy. I feel like a lady and that’s something I don’t feel very often.

So here’s the downside to doing things because you feel obligated; a sense of obligation is based on a sense of order and fairness, which means a part of you while always be expecting something in return. The great thing about a selfless act is that you are doing it because you want to, because you can, and because you don’t need them to return the favor. All the pressure is suddenly off.

Do nice things for someone because you want to show them you are thinking about them? Do nice things for someone because you know they will appreciate it? Forget the grand gestures and think of random acts of kindness that you know will make the other person happy?

Pretty sound advice that.

Suggested Reading:
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
I looked at every relationship in my life differently after reading this book. Chapman describes the five most common ways we show love for one another (spouses, friends, family) and how we can use that knowledge to show our love in ways that others will appreciate.

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