Empty Words of Kindness

Recently I shared the kind badges on Hacker News, a news aggregator for programmers. I imagine most people had positive or neutral feelings about it, but a few had a negative view of the project and left comments that I’ve been pondering ever since. The goal here is to have a positive impact on people, even if minor, so I care a great deal about signals that this may not be the case. Though each comment has already been answered personally, I wanted to offer a more general response for future reference.

These messages are meaningless because they’re robbed of any context or compassion. I won’t feel wonderful and loved because a random string generator on a GitHub readme page tells me so.

If you tell me “I like your shoes”, it will brighten my week. If I see you walking from person to person, telling every single one of them that you like their shoes, it won’t feel like much of a compliment. It’s not nice nor thoughtful. It’s just noise.

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A few other people expressed the same sentiment, in short that these “random” words of kindness are “empty”. While I understand the thought, I believe it points to a few misunderstandings.

The words are not random.

If “random” is taken to mean they are casually chosen or generated, then they are most definitely not random. The sentences and quotes are carefully curated to clearly convey that people are enough just as they are. This is surprisingly constraining and as a result the pool of sentences is as of yet quite small—less than 50. So while the selection from the pool is indeed random, the words are deliberate.

The words don’t come from a “string generator” or “bot”.

Yes, they are delivered digitally through an automated process. But if one receives a kind letter, one doesn’t usually dismiss it because “a piece of paper told me so”. The words were expressed by human beings. Some of them are quotes I’ve found from kind people, the others I’ve written personally.

The words can feel empty but that’s not the point.

I can think of at least two meanings behind the statement that words are “empty”. They can feel empty in that they don’t trigger “feelings of wonder and love”. And that’s true, a badge or a simple sentence, no matter how kind, may result in exactly 0 emotions. You can try it now:

Maybe you feel something, maybe you don’t. If you don’t, and you’ve never, I can tell you from personal experience that it can happen, but ultimately that’s not the point. The point is simply that those messages are true, regardless of how one feels about them in any given moment.

This brings us to the second meaning of empty words: that they are insincere or unsubstantiated.

If someone who knows you tells you you’re worthy it’s nice because you think they mean it. They’ve got to know you and come to that conclusion.

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Do they though—have to know you? To say “you’re worthy of a Nobel Prize”, yeah, maybe. But to say “you’re worthy of love”, “you’re worthy of being human”, “you’re worthy of kindness”? No, I don’t think so.

Not to say that it’s obvious. We often hear differently. We hear that we need a special car, or a special job, or a special kind of body in order to be worthy of happiness. We hear it so much we tend to believe it. But it’s not true, and that’s the point. And while I don’t expect a single badge in a corner of the internet to trigger that epiphany, it is something: a drop of water in an empty cup, a seed, a spark.

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Categorized as Commentary

Mister Rogers’ Remarkable Kindness

I discovered Mister Rogers late in my life through the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I was struck by his profound respect and kindness towards, well, everyone, but children especially.

I thought perhaps I could find some quotes to add to the API, and in my search I stumbled upon letters written by Mister Rogers in response to children from his audience. Here’s one among many others:

A letter from Mister Rogers to Doug.

What he chooses to say is, I think, an embodiment of kind speech. He emphasizes that the original letter was wonderful and interesting, and that it meant a lot to him. He answers the feedback. Finally he communicates a deep truth that everyone—children especially—deserve to know:

You’re special—just because you’re you.

That quote is now part of the Kind Speech collection. So is “you have good ideas” and several others, including my personal favorite:

There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.

Children have a way to bring out kindness in adults. Perhaps we sense that they are sensitive and innocent. But the line between children and adults is quite arbitrary, and we would be wise to recognize that we are not so different.

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Categorized as Updates

Introducing Kind Speech Badges

Built on top of the Kind Speech API, badges are an easy way for anyone to share some kind words online. They are simple, discrete, customizable, and will display an ever-changing kind message where you place them:

They were inspired by GitHub, where developers use badges to display dynamic information in a context where they can only provide static documentation (in Markdown).

These badges can of course be used on GitHub, in fact they follow the standard set by shields.io so they should fit right in alongside other badges. But they can also be used in other places, and not just by developers! All you need is this image URL:

https://api.kindspeech.org/v1/badge

You can add them to your personal website’s footer, your email signature, in online forums, in your blog posts, on your MySpace page (I just checked and yup that’s still a thing), etc.

For more information on customizing and using the badges, see the permanent Badges page. Thank you for reading!

Introducing the Kind Speech API

As I was thinking of ways to promote “kind speech” and compete against all the advertisements and commercial interests vying for people’s attention everywhere, I realized that it’s a ridiculous idea.

Kind speech: messages intending to make their recipients feel good about who they are and what they already have.

I’m still going to do it, of course, but the reality is the advertising market is huge. HUGE! Not only does it represent an enormous amount of financial power, it also has remarkable infrastructure in place to create and distribute advertisements.

For example, if you’d like to sell ads on your website, you can sign up with an ad service, paste some code into your site, and… that’s it! New ads will continuously appear on your site. You don’t need to talk to anyone, or think about anything—it’s all taken care of.

I thought, that’s so neat! I wish it was that easy to share kind messages, on a website or elsewhere. Even just figuring out what to say can be a challenge… And that’s where the Kind Speech API comes in.

If you’re a developer, it’s a super easy way to fetch a random message whose sole intention is to let anyone who reads it know that they are good enough just as they are. Try it out:

$ curl https://api.kindspeech.org/v1/text

It’s free, it’s simple, and there are no restrictions.

Check out the complete Kind Speech API documentation.

It’s a start, a modest one, but the hope is to grow it into a robust inventory of freely available messages of love and kindness.