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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

random acts of kindness

(1990’s | “kindness of strangers,” “being kind to others”)

The first use of this term in LexisNexis comes from a British source, which credits it to an American named Anne Herbert of San Francisco or somewhere out there in Bayarea. The story goes she saw graffiti that read “Random acts of violence,” and she created the counter-slogan the very same day. There have always been differing versions; the most economical I’ve seen is “Random acts of kindness and senseless beauty,” an elaboration on “random acts of kindness,” which was already in the air; there are several solid citations in Google Books before 1990, and an editorial in the December 1991 Glamour magazine used the expression. So Herbert didn’t invent it, but she improved it, and she gained plenty of credit for popularizing it. (Ben & Jerry’s was an early adopter.)

The breakout year was 1992. “Random acts of kindness” soon became talk-show fodder, then a bumper sticker, then the subject of a popular book. I think I first encountered it as a bumper sticker, though I can’t be sure — maybe around the same time as “visualize whirled peas”? It even inspired a short-lived movement that called itself Guerrilla Goodness, in which people went around putting money in other people’s parking meters or gratuitously helping senior citizens. The movement disappeared from view, at least under that name — which doesn’t mean it ceased to have adherents; The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and Random Acts of Kindness Week (not to mention World Kindness Day) now carry on the tradition. In 1992, we still had George Bush’s evocations of the “thousand points of light” fresh in our memories, and the Guerrilla Goodness movement might be seen as a response, though I’m not sure its members saw it that way at the time. The movie Pay It Forward (2000) gave another boost to the phrase. “Pay it forward” itself has become a new expression, which comes directly from the movie title — a nice bit of inspiration on the part of whoever thought it up. As I’ve noted, fewer expressions arise unquestionably from films than you might think.

Originally the phrase invariably carried the sense of doing something for someone you don’t know and aren’t trying to butter up — as the Boy Scouts have always preached — but also whether they need it or not. But that’s slipping; people now blithely refer to random acts of kindness directed at friends and relatives based on knowledge of their situation. (But not enemies, generally. Let’s not have too much of a good thing.) The “acts of kindness” part is self-explanatory, but you have to keep an eye on “random,” often used to mean unmotivated rather than unconnected. For true believers in random acts of kindness envision a world-wide web of kindness evolving as more and more people chase down strangers in order to do something unexpectedly nice.

Schoolchildren are frequently encouraged to practice random or not-so-random acts of kindness, and this phenomenon has only grown since the late nineties. If training, especially early training, is destiny, we will have an unusually kind new crop of adults any year now. It could be happening, for all I know, at least among the young and powerless. The powerful continue to consider such things beneath them most of the time, trumpeting the occasional exception, which makes that much more of an impression due to its rarity.

Like Shakespeare’s mercy, random acts of kindness bless them that give and them that take, and as a practical matter, the benefits to the actor are touted as much, or more, as those to the recipient. Doing something nice for someone you’ll probably never see again makes you feel better, improves your health, burnishes your karma, whatever on-line claims you can dig up. Your good deed might nonplus, or even irritate, the beneficiary, but it definitely gives you a hit of endorphins. If the recipient happens to pass it on, that’s a bonus. Many charitable acts have poorly concealed selfish motivations, so that the case for altruism often turns into the case for its opposite. Even the Golden Rule hints at self-interest by suggesting that the more the rule is exercised, the more likely each of us is to reap the benefit. Which presumably is where the notion of “enlightened self-interest” comes from. Maybe we should just settle for acts of kindness, random or not. Even the philosophers should let us get by with a few of those.

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