Sometimes our best intentions aren’t interpreted as acts of kindness.
Case in point: A friend of mine recently posted on social media that good friends are the ones who care enough to point out life’s little embarrassing moments, from veggies stuck in teeth to a makeup mishap. However, it was clear that her help was viewed as anything but helpful; she noted that sometimes people take offense in response to a kind gesture, as if there’s an ulterior motive like wanting to make others feel bad about themselves.
Her situation begs the question: Why is it that sometimes our sincerest words and actions, designed to help and not harm, are met with resistance? Why are some people angered or offended when a helping hand or phrase crosses their path?
Why Some People Aren’t Keen on Kindness
Aniesa Hanson, a licensed mental health counselor at Hanson Complete Wellness in Tampa, says, “it’s important to remember that our reactions are conditioned by our own past experiences and thoughts about others,” encouraging us not to take other people’s reactions personally. So while we may see anger in response to our kind gesture of paying for a stranger’s coffee or pointing out an undone shirt button, it could be that the recipient has their own reasons for becoming flustered over the gesture.
For example, Hanson explains that kindness may be met with a less-favorable response than you expected because “perhaps no one has ever done something out of the goodness of their heart for this stranger.” As a result, your caring gesture may throw them off. Or perhaps a person has been taken advantage of before, making them hesitant to trust kind gestures. “The stranger that gets upset about you holding the door open for them isn’t exactly upset at you directly but at what the gesture you’re doing represents to them,” Hanson says. “This is important to remember so you don’t feel personally attacked when someone isn’t happy about the act of kindness you’re trying to do for them.”
How to Respond When Caring Actions Are Misinterpreted
Even with this insight, it can be challenging to handle a cold response that you hadn’t anticipated. If your kind gesture is considered rude, don’t become discouraged. In addition to understanding the aforementioned reasons why someone may not be receptive to good intentions, Hanson suggests a few ways to respond:
1. Don’t mimic the other person’s anger.
Hanson explains that if someone’s initial response is to lash back in reaction to your kind gesture, it’s not your place to get involved. “There’s usually unaddressed pain they’re experiencing, which is not your job to fix,” she says. Resist the urge to lash back with a sarcastic response or angry tone. And then …
2. Take a breath.
Don’t try to match the other person’s anger. Take a calming breath instead and respond appropriately.
“Although you can’t control how someone reacts to you, you can control your response back,” Hanson says. “Before you respond, take a breath to calm your nervous system.” Doing so gives you time to pause and respond appropriately rather than immediately blurt something out that you may regret. It not only produces a calm effect in your body, but potentially prevents the situation from escalating. Finally …
3. Explain yourself calmly.
After taking a deep, calming breath, Hanson recommends, “State your intentions without defensiveness.” Statements such as, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you – I just enjoy buying coffee for others” are the type she considers appropriate. Always remember that your response may inform the recipient’s response to future encounters with kindness. “Your reaction could be a pivotal moment in changing this stranger’s perceptions of people’s intentions,” she says. “You can use that moment as an opportunity to positively impact how they view simple acts of kindness.”
So go ahead and buy that cup of coffee for a stranger or point out the blob of spaghetti sauce on a friend’s cheek. Just know that a smile or “thanks” may not be coming your way, and – knowing with the reasons behind such a reaction, coupled with your appropriate response in return – that’s actually OK.
Originally published in Psychology Today’s Human Kind column.