Acts of Kindness Around the World: How Different Cultures Show Compassion

Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” But where does kindness come from? Tune out the daily deluge of negativity on our screens, and you’ll see that there are still countless acts of kindness around the world. Here’s how six countries make compassion and kindness part of their culture.

1. South Africa: “Ubuntu” and the Human Connection

There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu — that can be translated as, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” The philosophy became known primarily through the writings of the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

As the leader of the anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s, Tutu observed that people are stronger working together than apart. “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another,” he said. “You are connected and what you do affects the whole world.”

Even today, Ubuntu continues to grow and expand. The philosophy is demonstrated through what many consider the trademark African friendliness, and it’s taught and practiced by Africans in schools and communities.

2. New Zealand: Extending Human Rights to the Environment

Named for the Maori spiritual guardian, “kaitiaki” is a term used in New Zealand to mean guardianship of the sky, sea, and land. “Kaitiakitanga,” the practice of kaitiaki, is a way of managing and maintaining the environment by making use of traditional ideas in today’s world.

For example, the Māori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island recently won a 140-year battle for recognition of the Whanganui river, the third-largest in New Zealand. Tribal members wept tears of joy when they learned the river, which they consider an ancestor, would be granted the same legal rights as human beings. Now, harming the river carries the same penalty as harming a person.

3. Japan: A Tradition Paid

“Senbetsu” is the Japanese custom of giving money to a loved one about to embark on a journey, such as traveling to another part of the world. This custom can also involve “sending off” money for someone who’s moving or leaving a job. The idea is that journeys are not always easy, and a helping hand can ease the transition and soften the bumps along the way.

4. Myanmar: The Religious Call to Give

Myanmar, a small country in Southeast Asia, is setting an example for acts of kindness around the world. Despite having one of the highest poverty rates, Myanmar was named the world’s most giving nation in 2016. An astounding 91 percent of Myanmar residents gave money to charity, 63 percent said they had helped a stranger, and 55 percent said they had volunteered.

According to the report, “The high scores are likely to be a result of Theravada Buddhism practiced by a large proportion of the population in Myanmar, whereby followers donate to support those living a monastic lifestyle — a practice known as Sangha Dana.”

5. Italy: An Anonymous, Caffeinated Gift for a Stranger

Kindness can come in many forms, and sometimes it even comes in a cup — a cup of coffee that is. The tradition of a “caffè sospeso” (suspended coffee), in which a cup of coffee is paid for anonymously in advance, began in Naples, Italy, some 100 years ago. If they could afford it, a person would pay for two coffees and, later, someone who could not afford it would be served a cup for free.

Although the pay-it-forward tradition waned over the years, it’s making a comeback. Many coffee shops throughout the world have adopted the idea — there’s even a global movement.

6. Spain: A Spiritual Pilgrimage and the People who Care

It’s said that walking the 500-mile-long Camino de Santiago in Spain turns strangers into neighbors. Camino de Santiago, known as “the Way of St. James,” is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Europe and lead to the tomb of Santiago, “St. James.” Along this spiritual and occasionally grueling journey, many acts of kindness are offered to the hikers, known as “pilgrims.” Local townspeople along the way, called “the Angels of the Camino,” offer directions, clean water, food, places to sleep, and even hugs. Through these simple acts, they show compassion for others.

Anyone can perform an act of kindness. It doesn’t have to be huge or heroic; it just needs to come from your heart.