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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