To spread a little more joy, we're taking a look at how people show kindness worldwide, from ancient cultural traditions to more modern acts of generosity. Perhaps it will inspire you to make a difference by being kind to yourself or to someone else today.
- Southern Africa: Ubuntu
Though made popular by South African leaders like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it’s an idea that’s common to many of the cultures of Southern Africa. The word comes from the Nguni proverb “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu", translated as “a person is a person through other persons”. In Malawi, it’s called uMunthu. In Zimbabwe, the Shona call it unhu. In all of these languages, the meaning is the same: “I am because we are.” In short, you can't be a human being in isolation, and the relationships within a group are more important than each individual.
The profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.
For some, Ubuntu is like a soul force that will push one toward selfless acts that benefit the community. It manifests in displays of kindness and compassion, like sharing resources, caring for each other or the children in a community. It’s no wonder the proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” hails from Africa.
- Japan: Omotenashi
Often described as the world's most polite country, Japan's selfless hospitality tradition stems from a practice known as "motenashi” or “omotenashi.” This cornerstone of Japanese culture is grounded in the centuries-old tradition of the sadō (tea ceremony). Beyond just serving and receiving tea, one of the tea ceremony's primary purposes is for the host to ensure their guests' every need is fulfilled without expecting anything in return and for the guests to enjoy the host’s hospitality by showing gratitude. This creates an environment of harmony and respect.
Omotenashi is often translated as “hospitality”, “spirit of service”, or anticipating others' needs. Long before COVID19 made it a global norm to wear face masks in public areas, the Japanese would already don surgical masks to prevent spreading their cold to others. Neighbours would also gift washing powder to neighbours before beginning construction work – a gesture to help clean your clothes from the dust that will inevitably make its rounds.
- Greece: Philoxenia
In Ancient Greece, showing proper hospitality was considered a commandment of the gods, specifically Zeus (Xenios), the god of foreigners or strangers. Should a guest or stranger knock on your door, you were obliged to welcome them with food and shelter before asking any questions. On the guest’s part, they were expected to show respect by never overstaying their welcome. Failure to meet any of these requirements meant risking the wrath of the gods. And we all know how long they can hold a grudge for.
Taken from the Greek words xenia (the concept of showing generosity and courtesy towards travellers who are far from home) and philo (care for), the idea became known as philoxenia, or love of strangers (and later hospitum, or hospitality).
- Italy: Caffè Sospeso
Next up is “caffè sospeso" or "suspended coffee." Over 100 years old, this tradition began in Naples and calls for people who've had a good day or feel like doing something nice to order two "suspended" coffees in a coffee bar. You pay for two coffees, but you drink only one. Then, someone else can come in and claim the “suspended coffee” if they need a bit of kindness in an espresso cup.
- Singapore: The Singapore Kindness Movement
Singapore has gone one further and turned kindness into an official movement. The Singapore Kindness Movement is a non-profit organisation inspired by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Listed as an official “Institution of Public Character”, it works to inspire “graciousness” in the locals with signs on buses and tips on their website – you can even take a quiz to find out just how kind you are and how you can improve.
- Iran: Wall of Kindness
In 2015, someone anonymously set up a “wall of kindness” in Mashhad, and the idea quickly spread throughout Iran. A “wall of kindness” functions as a public donation space for clothing, and sometimes food and whatever else the donator no longer needs. If a passer-by needs something, they can simply take it for free. This movement is rooted in Persian culture and the words of ancient poets such as Rumi, who championed the virtues of kindness. This spirit of kindness is also present in the Persian art of etiquette, or taarof, which puts politeness first in every social interaction.
- New Zealand: Kaitiakitanga
There’s kindness to self, kindness to others, and kindness to the world we live in. New Zealand is a prime example of a country with a culture that recognises this. Kaitiakitanga, meaning guardianship and protection, is the practice of kaitiaki, the Māori concept of guarding the sky, sea and land. It is a way of managing the environment, based on the Māori world view. The local iwi (tribe) appoints a person or group to act as a guardian for a lake or forest. Fun fact; In 2017, the New Zealand government awarded the Whanganui River in the North Island the same legal rights as human beings, meaning that harming the body of water now has the same penalties as harming a person.
- The Jewish Festival of Purim
One of the most important charity and friendship customs of Purim is giving the gift of food — mishloach manot. Giving a mitzvah, or good deed, and giving to the poor, the elderly and the less fortunate is considered virtuous.
- Philippines: Tulong
Helping those whose needs are immediate and temporary, Tulong can mean sharing food or money, and even a place to stay. Tulong was especially evident following a wave of natural disasters that left thousands in the island nation in need. While the concept initially began on a much smaller scale with family members helping one another, it has grown to include more types of giving. Tulong-aral is help given explicitly for education, for example.
- China: Mudita
Perhaps you’re familiar with the term ‘schadenfreude’, a complex emotion where, rather than feeling sympathy, one takes pleasure from watching someone's misfortune? Well, the Chinese concept of Mudita is the exact opposite. Stemming from the Buddhist tradition of practising unselfish joy, it revolves around the happiness we experience at another's good fortune or accomplishments. This appreciation for and of other people can be cultivated through meditation and mindfulness.