Life Lessons: The Journey towards Accepting Kindness with Grace

Pull yourself together. It's only a cup of tea.

Accepting kindness with grace is not one of my superpowers. Accepting it with awkwardness, yes, but grace, no. Every time one of the girls at work asks if I’d like a cup of tea, I deliberate for a beat longer than I should. Usually, the answer is yes, but then I feel beholden to make everyone else in the office a cup of tea at some point in the future, and what if they don’t like the way I make it? But I can hardly say no every time, only to get up twenty minutes later to make my own cup. Then I think, pull yourself together woman, it’s only tea.

In the US, it was every woman for herself, with each coffee individually purchased and all restaurant bills meticulously divided right down to the extra side of guacamole. If I borrowed a dollar from somebody, you better believe I paid it back. In Australia, it’s a swings-and-roundabouts mentality: I’ll get this round if you get the next one. Don’t worry about splitting up the check, it’ll come out in the wash. And you know what? It usually does. Karma isn’t just something that strikes down the bad guys; it’s something that helps us to live in harmony.

Of course, it’s not just my cultural background that makes me anxious about returning a favor; it’s also personal. During my twenties, I was the borrower, the one whose bank account seemed to be set on a slight delay behind real time. Whether it was my roommate spotting me for the rent or my travel buddy shouting me an extra round of beers, I maintained a running tally of what I owed people and made sure that I paid them back in kind. By the time I hit thirty, I’d resolved that weakness, the one that rejected budgeting in favor of instant gratification. It was a hard lesson to learn, and it’s not without a few lingering side effects.

It’s been years since I’ve had to pay a friend back, but when someone is kind to me I still can’t shake the feeling that I owe them something in return. At the very least, I owe them an appropriate level of appreciation for what they’ve done, but I don’t always know what that is. Thank you feels hollow, not enough. Returning the gesture at some point is probably a good option, but adding “Reciprocate act of kindness” to my mental to-do list seems to make it less genuine and therefore inadequate. Every Christmas, I throw gifts at Jared, hoping that sheer quantity will overcome the fact that I can never manage to come up with the one perfect present. (Which, by the way, is one of Jared’s many superpowers. He always finds the present that strikes the ideal balance between simple and meaningful.)

Giving, in any capacity, can be fraught with emotional baggage, which is why Christmas, birthdays, and other annual events tend to be twinned with unwanted stress. A wedding, then, is the pinnacle of giving and receiving, because it’s only supposed to happen once. Everyone has to cram all of that gifting into one single event, and trying to keep score is a recipe for burnout. That’s why I found the business aspect of a wedding oddly calming, minus the whole give-me-all-your-money thing. Here’s your invoice, there’s the payment, deal done. No fretting over exactly how to express my thanks because it’s right there in a predetermined dollar amount.

Then I entered an online competition for free day-of-coordination services. For an entire month, I was the only entrant. “If no one else enters, then you win by default,” the coordinator wrote. “Ha ha!” I didn’t laugh. Two days before the contest closed, a local Hawaiian couple entered, racked up hundreds of “likes,” and swanned off with the win. That afternoon I received an email offering us a runner-up prize of partial-day coordination. As soon as my initial excitement wore off, I was stricken. How could I express my appreciation without going overboard or, worse, undervaluing her services? Should I give her a tip? How much, in dollars, was my gratitude worth?

I sent a gushing thank you email and signed off with a promise to add good reviews to Wedding Wire and Yelp. Working out tips could come later; at least for now I wanted to offer her some sort of pledge that I’d do something tangible to repay her favor. As soon as I hit send, I felt like an idiot. She wasn’t doing this because she wanted something. She did it to be kind. She offered me a wedding day cup of tea and I splashed it on her shoes in my haste to make one in return.

I’m stuck in the mindset that kindness is an obligation, but it’s not. Showing kindness comes naturally, even if receiving it doesn’t. It feels good to be nice to people. There’s a reason Ellen DeGeneres signs off her show by saying, “Be kind to one another.” Any time I catch her show, there’s Ellen, practicing what she preaches. The people cry, and they say thank you, and that is always enough. No one tries to give Ellen a tip or promises to like her Facebook page. Ellen never says, “Your response was unsatisfying, give me back that $10,000 check.” Kindness does not—or should not—come with self-serving conditions, and running away from it never made the world a better place.

I am trying to remember that kindness is inherently a swings-and-roundabouts system, not a way of keeping score. This morning, I made a cup of coffee for one of my co-workers while we were both in the kitchen. When she found that it wasn’t quite strong enough, she added a teaspoon of instant coffee to her mug and thanked me. I didn’t feel bad; she didn’t either. There was no guilt, only gratitude, because lending and giving are not the same thing. It wasn’t the way I made the coffee that mattered; it was the fact that I’d made it at all.

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  • scw

    that first paragraph is gold. hilarious gold.

  • Mags

    This is me. I hate keeping score of every little kindness, but I can’t help it. That’s one reason why I never drink tea of coffee at work. ;)

    • Jess

      Do you often do things for other people? I’m wondering if there’s some connection with being uncomfortable with kindness done to you and generally being a giver to others. Because I think nothing of filling up someone else’s cup or making fresh coffee or bringing baked goods to a movie night, but someone else doing those things makes me feel like they’ve gone so far out of their way)

  • STM

    Great piece! I know I’ve struggled with many aspects of this during wedding planning — particularly when I ask friends or family for help. And I definitely got the I’m-so-independent-I-don’t-even-need-my-friends-for-nothin’ thing from my mom, who has been OH SO HELPFUL by breathing down my neck about how we should hire coordinators, decorators, drivers and deliver-ers, because it’s inconsiderate to ask friends or family to do anything. I’m trying to just take a breath and say “Mom, these people offered to be a part of the day. They’ve all said that they want to help. They’re adults. If I take them up on that offer, it’s not on me if they actually didn’t mean it and feel grumpy because I took them at their word.” And then inside I’m still freaking out like “How am I ever going to make this up to them??” Even people where I gladly worked my tush off at their own wedding.

    • JSwen

      Isn’t it crazy that we have to keep reminding ourselves (and sometimes, our mothers) that other people are, in fact, adults?

  • Fiona

    “In the US, it was every woman for herself, with each coffee individually
    purchased and all restaurant bills meticulously divided right down to
    the extra side of guacamole.” Which is of course NOT the way I like to live… I love giving and treating my friends and doing nice things. BUT it becomes so stressful when I’m on the receiving end of acts of kindness not meant to be repaid! I understand you exactly.

  • Emily

    The bit about the lingering guilt for having been a “borrower” struck me. My family and my parent’s close friends have always operated on the “Give what you can, share what you’ve got” plan. When I got to college, I assumed that’s how everyone lived. If one of my girlfriends was short on cash or needed a dress to wear I had no problem spotting them a $20 and if someone needed my biology notes I was happy to give my painstakingly color coordinated notebooks, “no worries”, I’d say, “get me next time”. It wasn’t til the end of my Sophomore year a boyfriend pointed out that my roommate was just using me for perfect notes for classes she skipped and a never ending supply of little dresses that she would promptly spill wine on. It was one of the most startling epiphanies of my life. Since then I’m skeptical of new friends who may be “Borrowers” and I hate it. Maybe I should move to Australia!

    • Teresa

      Your last line made me giggle and think of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day.

    • KC

      I have tried it both ways, and it feels a lot more pleasant to be occasionally taken advantage of than to be always on the lookout for people who are going to take advantage of you. (not that it is pleasant to be taken advantage of; just on the whole)

      I have, however, adopted the practice of loaning out only when if it doesn’t come back, that’s okay or not-friendship-breaking. (there are a few books I can’t replace; those only get loaned out to friends who I know are *really* good at returning things; there’s a sort of oscillating limit on cash-spotting, depending on how things are financially and how well I know the person/how much they need it; etc.) It seems to work out okay, for the most part; sometimes your guess is off (as to whether someone will return something… or as to how irritated you’ll be if they don’t… or there’s an occasional ballooning or misunderstanding of the scope of an agreed-upon action), but it’s a mostly functional “system”.

      And I love the “you put into the community whatever you can, and you accept whatever you need” general mentality, and have found that it’s sometimes possible to *build* that even in the US. (as, probably, your parents and their close friends did!) But I haven’t started a commune yet…

    • lildutchgrrl

      I generally am quite happy to lend items to friends and acquaintances, but I have started noting to myself who doesn’t return them or returns them in unacceptable condition. Those people are quietly placed on a do-not-lend list. I don’t volunteer to help them again in that way. If they were to ask again, I think I would have to explain that the last item was not treated well, and either give them a second chance with something non-critical to my life or make a hard rule about not letting them borrow my things.

  • Kelsey

    Oh man!! My fiancee is a gift giving superpower as well, I also make up for my deficiencies with quantity…

    • Lisa

      My fiancé has some kind of weird, superhuman power to pick up on little things I might say and use them to find me the perfect gift for any circumstance. I on the other hand spend months asking not-so-subtle questions and browsing Amazon trying to think of a thing he might like at all. Little hints are so lost on me…

    • It is SO! Frustrating! I still have the thoughtful handmade chess set and copy of ‘The Hobbit’ he gave me at our first Christmas, yet I cannot even remember what handful of meaningless yet over-thought pile of electronics and such I gave him. Also, his birthday and Christmas fall on the same day. So he pretty much drowns in useless gifts that time of year.

  • I hear you! Well said. Wedding planning has been the one activity in my life that has truly taught me to accept help graciously–and I’m grateful that I’ve finally learned the lesson. (Fingers crossed, though: one month to go.)

  • Lena and Aggy

    This totally resonates. I feel like this is only something I’ve learned as I’ve edged towards my thirties. I did have a fantastic mentor about a decade older than me at work who, one day, on a business trip, after I profusely insisted that I pay for MY OWN DAMN MARGARITA she said “Look, Lauren, one day, you will be having margaritas with a broke 25-year-old. And that is when you can pay for this margarita.”

    So, I try to think about that sometimes when I allow myself to be treated and similarly when I treat others.

    • lady brett

      definitely something i’ve learned with age. i think in part because when i was in school my friends were my peers, so we tended to be in similar places in life, and so favors and money tended to fall into that “swings and roundabouts” (love that phrasing) style. after graduation, though, i found that my friends weren’t generally part of my peer group – suddenly i was an adult with adult friends…a broke 22-year-old adult with established 32- or 42-year-old adult friends – who always spotted the bill and wouldn’t let us whinge about it. and now i’m still an adult, but an established 30-year-old adult to whom spotting a few dinner bills is not a major budget disaster, and who has a few 22-year-old friends who can’t honestly afford to hang out if it means buying dinner out. so, yeah, i’m a big fan of the swings-and-roundabouts style, but paying things forward has a wonderful place as well.

      • Lena and Aggy

        I do also love the phrasing as well :)

    • Jess

      R and I were at our last dinner on a trip to Maine and had talked with an older couple for a while before being seated (we were hanging out at the bar, drinking wine and eating an appetizer). When the waitress came to our table, she told us to select any bottle of wine we wanted, that the couple wanted to buy it for us.

      About halfway through the meal (and halfway through a very delicious middle priced bottle of wine), the husband comes over to us and tells us a story. When they were on their second date, all dressed up and nervous, an older couple bought them their choice of wine. 40 years later, when they meet a young couple at a restaurant they pass on the favor.

      At first we felt a little guilty: who are we to have deserved this? We tried to buy them a dessert in gratitude (it didn’t work). But eventually we realized that it was such a great story and a very cool thing to pass on when we are old.

      • Lena and Aggy

        Oh gosh I love this so much. I want to rush out and do it right now. What a really great sentiment!

        • Jess

          Right?! It is one of my favorite stories about people. They were so sweet – we just offered them a few chairs at the table where we were sitting enjoying our appetizer in the bar. They didn’t want to interrupt us and turned the chairs around, but kept chatting anyway.

          We were so appreciative – it wasn’t so much that we couldn’t afford the bottle on our own as it was that someone had thought to do this for us and make the night a little more special. People can be really great sometimes and it can be hard to let them be great.

    • Here in Canada, a new trend has emerged where you pay for the coffee of the person behind you in the drive-thru line, and then drive off (and never meet the coffee recipient). I’ve had so many colleagues run into work in the morning beaming that some stranger made their day by paying for their coffee.

      • Lena and Aggy

        Oh I love that too. Although I am a bit of a sucker for watching someone’s elation by getting a free coffee. Maybe I would do it at Starbucks in the store so I can sneakily watch them be all “oh that’s so NICE”. Call me selfish but I love those happy reactions.

  • Sara

    I have several people in my life that I have a ‘swings-and-roundabout’ type of relationship with. Those people are fantastic, and I love the ease of bill paying transactions with them. But I am always on guard about getting taken advantage of because my mother and brother (who are both great people in general) are total bean counters. For example – my brother and I went to a concert this weekend. I bought the tickets with him saying he’ll get me back. Day of, he says ‘oh but you owe me $20, so now we’re even’. Which is fine…but when I buy lunch for the two of us, I’m not waiting for the next chance to say ‘ohnowitsyourturn!’

  • JSwen

    I like buying old friends lunch or a drink when we meet up either where we grew up or if they are visiting my city. Some times I feel bad afterward, in a, “do they think I’m showing off, throwing money at them?” sort of way. Then I realize that I’ve never felt that way when a friend did the same for me. I like paying it forward instead of paying it back. Also, they are adults and can say no if they don’t want a gifted beer or sandwich. :)

  • Megan

    This was a good read for me. Sometimes I find myself thinking too “transactionally” all the time. But I think it’s also because I expect people to do something nice for me if I do something nice for them–though maybe I don’t wait long enough for the return. Example: I helped my friends paint and move into their new condo a couple of weeks ago. We took a break from painting to go out to lunch, and I kind of expected them to treat me to our (not expensive) lunch, but they didn’t. (That’s something I would do as a small gesture of thanks.) I left feeling sort of annoyed–I guess I feel like a small gesture of thanks goes a long way in feeling recognized for doing something out of the ordinary. But it’s also part of just being a good friend, so I guess I shouldn’t feel like I deserve something in return.

    I think part of it may come from me often feeling like the leader of our group of friends–I’ll organize something, no one will offer to host, I end up hosting things at my house all the time, I offer to drive the carpool to some activity, etc. It gets tiring after awhile to not feel like other people return the favor after awhile–I feel like I sometimes get taken advantage of.

    • Dawn

      I think they should have taken you to lunch! To me, that is basic courtesy when people are spending the day helping you. Maybe this is a subcultural thing, but buying beer and pizza was a traditional way to thank people for helping you move in my college/ grad school circles.

      • KC

        Pizza and drinks were also considered appropriate thanks for student moving help in three separate US cultures I’ve lived in, so I think that’s pretty safe. (otter pops: also very popular, and useful when moving because they’re not disastrous if they defrost and refreeze)

        The post-student moving help is sometimes more complicated, because you don’t want to accidentally imply that it’s transactional (aka: your time hired for half a day is financially equivalent to one free cheapo dinner/lunch) or people sometimes get insulted. So that may be where the not-buying-their-lunch thing may have come from?

        But increasingly-grownup-quality pizza and drinks (or, for morning moving help, doughnuts and fruit and drinks, or whatever) seem to generally be acceptable even past student days as long as it’s not presented as an equal trade, but just as a thank-you, in my limited experience. Just don’t make it an “okay, I’ve now bought you one slice of pizza in exchange for hauling furniture up and down stairs for a chunk of the day, so invoices are clear!” sort of proposition!

      • ElisabethJoanne

        Maybe they plan to send something better than that lunch when they’re settled? I’ve totally seemed ungrateful in the moment because I already have my thank-you gift planned and in the moment I get flustered.

    • Emily

      I often feel taken advantage of too and it is something I’m consciously trying to figure out or change. But what to change? Do I need to set better boundaries? I find myself often able to see “train wrecks” coming and knowing what needs to be done to stop them. But then I get frustrated that I’m always the responsible one.

      Here’s an example: my step-child wants to play sports next year. Free physicals are being offered at the next town over tonight, but they have to bring a specific form. Dad said he would get the form, but, as much as I love him, I bet he forgot. Step-child is old enough to remind him (nicely) and I did mention it to her but I can tell she is doing nothing. I, also, am going to do nothing, but I feel guilty about that and I can see us likely having to pay for (and schedule) a physical, neither in our long-term best interest.

      Sorry for the somewhat off-topic post… but any thoughts from you smart women are appreciated.

      • annonyanka

        I would make a point of telling both the adult and the child that you will not get the form and that if step-daughter is not able to get the free physical, she will have to be in charge of ensuring that the dad schedules another physical and will need to pay for half of the co-pay out of her allowance (although I think a lot of plans now have one free general checkup each year, so it might be free). If the form is not gotten and she doesn’t ensure that her dad schedules a physical, she will not be able to play sports.

        That way you’ve made the consequences clear to two people who otherwise might not have realized the multi-step consequences, but you’ve also made it clear that you will not be swooping in at the last minute.

        My mom had a saying when I was a kid that “your procrastination does not constitute my emergency.” Sometimes it could feel harsh, but I think it helped her stay sane and made me realize I needed to step up. When I got to college and saw kids whose parents had always rushed to the office supply store for last-minute remembered projects be completely unable to plan to go shopping for their own supplies — I was grateful to my mom.

      • ElisabethJoanne

        As the daughter of disorganized parents, and the wife of a man with Executive Dysfunction, this describes my daily life. I’ve done 3 things with my husband that help tremendously:
        1. We chose a month where he pays all the bills. I usually pay the bills because he’s forgotten/messed it up in the past. With this month, we learn that he can take on this task, and it reassures me for the future for when I can’t due to illness or a crazy work schedule. Just knowing he can step in takes a lot of the pressure off.
        2. I’ve expressed to him, sometimes with tears and a raised voice, that these things do weigh on my mind. This is hard for him to understand, because it’s physically impossible for something to nag on his mind, but at least he knows that even though I handle things like medical paperwork easily and with a smile, I don’t always enjoy the responsibility.
        3. We regularly sit down with his appointment book and discuss what household tasks he needs to do.

        But I could totally name things on an Executive Dysfunction budget – like the $17 charge for credit monitoring he signed up for accidentally after losing my instructions on getting the info for free, or the $100 we just paid for medications because he didn’t look into the lower-cost options suggested by my doctor, or the hundreds of dollars in parking tickets. I can still get really frustrated.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      This is related to this week’s earlier discussion of asking people to bring/take stuff for your wedding. Planning is work, but people who don’t do it often don’t realize how much work it is. I’d be honest with your friends. Just say, “I’m tired of hosting.” The scary thing about this is that sometimes when the habitual organizer backs down, people don’t step up. You have to balance that risk with the value of your friendships and your present resentment.

  • annonyanka

    Thank you for writing this piece. I’m not getting married (I love this site for all the glorious feminist writing) but this piece really hit home for me. In college I was always the one taking care of others because I was lucky enough to have spending money when many friends didn’t (one friend and I traded buying groceries for another friend whose mother had committed financial fraud in her son’s name so he otherwise was living literally on ramen alone).

    Now that I’m 29 and jobless for the second time (layoffs after company acquisitions suck) I’m finding it difficult to feel like I’m constantly taking. It’s not always money, but the kindness of a friend texting to ask how an interview went and tell me that companies are idiots for not hiring me, another friend offering to read my cover letter, or another sending me a link to “Ali and the Jungle” when I received yet another rejection — it’s all a debt I will never be able to repay.

    This post helped me remember that all those kindnesses that I’ve tossed out were never with the expectation of repayment. I had something to give to someone I loved, so of course I gave. The next time I’m afraid to say yes to a friend’s kindness I’m going to remind myself that it’s a system of swings and roundabouts. I’ll get them, or someone else, in the future.

  • Dawn

    I would suggest that it is both kind and generous to receive. I’m not as good at is as I would like to be, but I try.

    This issue came up in our marriage preparation class. My husband and I are both givers and don’t do as well receiving. My husband is an extreme example and often acts unappreciative because he feels so guilty that people are going something for him.

  • Hayley

    Oh I was nodding my head along with ALL of this! I feel enormous guilt when someone does something nice for me, and feel the need to pay it back times five. I laughed so hard at this, “But I can hardly say no every time, only to get up twenty minutes later to make my own cup” because probably, I’d just spend the morning without tea, cursing myself for not accepting the co-worker’s offer in the first place!

    • Oh yes, I have definitely sat there wishing I’d just have accepted the offer! It makes no sense, but we do it.

      • Caitlyn

        I do the same exact thing – I respond “no thanks” without even considering and then sit there longing for whatever I just turned down – BUT I have discovered one solution – I just get up a few minutes later and make myself tea, but I acknowledge it to the person who offered by smiling and saying something like “well, I didn’t think I wanted tea, but yours smells so good, I changed my mind”. I’m still working on actually accepting offers, but at least that can save me some regret.

  • Stephalopod

    All of my friends and myself have the “coming out in the wash” mentality…we’re always paying for each other, bringing snacks and booze to each other’s houses and letting everyone consume it. And we live in the USA. I just…thought that was normal?

    • No, you’re right in that it is normal for many in the US, but I think it depends on the social group and the history. My college girlfriends and I established the payback thing when we were young and usually borderline broke, and it’s easy to fall back into that habit when we see each other now (which is rare). But i do find that ‘keeping tabs’ is much less of an issue now.

  • Emma Klues

    Love this post, love Ellen, love kindness and LOVE everyone’s journey to pay it somewhere somehow rather than pay-right-back-right-now. This topic fascinates me and I always enjoy discussing it.

  • Nikki

    Looking at the comments it seems that so many of us struggle with this – I know I do. I’ve recently started a mission to accept kindness more graciously after my husband pointed out that it’s not a skill of mine. I find it helps to think to myself ‘would this be something I would be happy to do for someone else’ and remind myself ‘people don’t usually offer unless they genuinely mean it’. Reminding myself of how I’d feel if I was the ‘giver’ rather than the ‘receiver’ seems to help me switch off that innate guilt.

    Also, I have an uncle who is amazing at accepting things. If you offer him something, even if it’s only a cup of tea, he accepts in such a graceful way it brings you genuine pleasure that you offered him something. It’s something I’m trying to emulate (but yes, I still totally keep a ‘reciprocal act of kindness’ list in my mind).