You Can’t Quantify Kindness: Our Statistical Obsession

Chicago graph clim
Like this....but with feelings! Image via Wikipedia

Great piece in The New York Times by Alina Tugend about our growing — and misguided — obsession with measuring everything in our lives:

Numbers and rankings are everywhere. And I’m not just talking about Twitter followers and Facebook friends. In the journalism world, there’s how many people “like” an article or blog. How many retweeted or e-mailed it? I’ll know, for example, if this column made the “most e-mailed” of the business section. Or of the entire paper. And however briefly, it will matter to me.

Offline, too, we are turning more and more to numbers and rankings. We use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and students. The polling companies have already begun to tell us who’s up and who’s down in the 2012 presidential election. Companies have credit ratings. We have credit scores.

And although most people acknowledge that there are a million different ways to judge colleges and universities, the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report of institutions of higher education have gained almost biblical importance.

As the author of a newly released book about working retail I haven’t once (honest!) checked my amazon ranking number.

Seriously, what good can it possibly do?

Will my hips suddenly shrink or my bank balance double? I wish!

My thesis about why retail associates are so horribly paid is linked to this data obsession: you can’t measure kindness!

Think about the very best salesperson you ever met — (or hotel employee or waiter or nurse or teacher).

The EQ — or emotional intelligence — the skills that really left the strongest impression on you, are probably not their technical mastery of that new Mac or their grasp of the essentials of calculus, but how they helped you: with patience, humor, calm, grace.

All of these are essential qualities we simply cannot put on a graph.

And that which we cannot measure, we do not value.

I was in the hospital in March 2007 for three terrifying days, on a IV with pneumonia, from overwork and exhaustion. (Don’t ever get pneumonia — it makes you cough so hard, for hours at a time, you can break a rib.)

I finally begged the nurse to swaddle me tight in a cotton sheet, like an infant, to ease my aching muscles. She never raised an eyebrow at my weird request, but did it at once, with a compassion that I will never forget.

That healing quality of care, invisible, unmeasured and therefore too often undervalued, is not inscribed anywhere in my medical records.

It should be.

13 thoughts on “You Can’t Quantify Kindness: Our Statistical Obsession

  1. EQ will be a measurable number at the rate we’re going. They’ll start breaking down compassion into measurable chunks and put a number to it, you watch 😉

    I have to say though, that I’m part of a brilliant online community of photographers. Yes, retweeting and liking and all that techno-love is a part of it, but the personality, compassion, affection, support of all these individuals scattered all over the globe, are the biggest part of it as well. There are a handful of people out there that I’ve never met – some of whom I never will – but we’ve managed to forge a deep connection over pixels that is as true, and in some ways deeper, than an in-person one. You could measure it in page hits, inbound links, and other stats, but that is only a small part of what it is.

    Not all lost. Not yet anyway 😉

  2. I think you’ve made a great point; my reference was only in the workplace, where “value” is measured and financially rewarded. But, yes, the online communities we now enjoy are quite amazing. I’m part of a similar global community of writers — from China to Austria — who also buoy me and help me and laugh and cry (Chris and Tim, for example) with me. We’re fortunate in this respect.

    1. Ah the workplace, yes, that ongoing irony. They do their best to dehumanize work processes and get everything moving as machine-like as possible, then launch expensive programs targeted at staff satisfaction, happiness, and…. the Gallup score.

      Gotta love it!

  3. I found it such a bitter irony in retail that they measured every conceivable metric of final sales — but never the SKILL that ensured that sale occurred.

    The industrial nature of work — where we are simply viewed as “labor” — is very 19th century but persists everywhere.

  4. I totally agree with you. I just wonder what we can do except continue to fill out all of those little comment cards whenever we’re impressed with someone’s service. Surely we can invent a more convenient and valuable way of affirming the very qualities consumers find most important!

    1. Seriously….there is something you can do; one of my customers did it for me and it’s in my book! She sent me a very detailed email praising me to the skies, which of course my manager and his managers saw.

      Whenever you get terrific service, thank the person by name when you’re there, tell them you will write a letter to HQ…and make the time to do so. It will send a powerful message to corporate that their associates ARE doing some great (less visible) work.

  5. You have no idea how much I needed to read this post today! I have been behind on all things online- and blogging- related for about a week now, and I was starting to panic about my own blog stats plummeting. But who really cares? Does my dip in site visitors *really* reflect on me as a person? No. I CANNOT BE QUANTIFIED!

    It’s funny… as a Communication Studies student, I was always rallying the troops against stats and numbers in favour of a more holistic and qualitative approach. But look who’s Dr. Stats now? Thanks for the gentle reminder that there’s more to life than this! 🙂

  6. Blogging will do that to you! I’ve been frustrated that I can’t sustain the number of views I want — 200+ daily (really wanting 300+) — but I work like a dog and need to sleep and really, would my life suddenly change?I am thrilled to have so many subscribers now, 459, but do not attach huge importance to the stats. I think it’s difficult to detach from all these forms of measurement.

    My sweetie is a Buddhist and they do blue sky meditation. Look into a blue sky. Then try to measure it. 🙂

  7. Actually, kindness is starting to be measured in the form of feedback surveys at retail stores. Once I realized this, I made it a priority to actually provide feedback on the electronic surveys, especially when the sales clerk was kind. I beleive that kindness is more measurable in quanity and words than in a numerical value, but eventually, people will start quanitfying the amount of comments that come in on a particular customer service person 😦

  8. Great post. Hope it’s OK I hit “Like.” 🙂

    I think the nature of blogging makes it harder to escape number obsession. Since most of us are unpaid, those viewer stats are what we look at to see if we’re “making it.” I pay more attention to comments. It’s great to know that people like my work.

    I definitely write letters or do the electronic surveys if an employee has been really thoughtful. I hope it helps, even if it just brightens someone’s lousy day.
    Ms. Pearl

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