Try to always be kind because you never know when you’re incompetent

We are rarely one step from disaster. Most really awful outcomes require at least two things to go wrong. Often, but not always those two things are ill-will and stupidity.

Hanlon’s razor says that you should never attribute to malice that which you can attribute to incompetence. It’s not a bad way to think, but it’s misleading if you take it too far, because most disasters are caused by a little bit of both. For example, a wildfire department is under-resourced because the state just doesn’t care enough, and the resources are misallocated within the department, because the state is incompetent. A police officer is too incompetent to tell that the suspect is choking to death, and doesn’t care about the person enough to stop just because they are inflicting pain.

The good news is that you can short circuit the synergy between malice and incompetence and often prevent the most disastrous consequences of your actions by trying to be a nice person. It’s much easier to stop yourself from being mean than it is to stop yourself from being stupid- you usually know when you’re being mean, but you usually don’t know when you’re being stupid. Most of the time you also don’t have to be exceptionally kind to avoid disaster either, just ordinarily decent.

I worked in ED admin once, in the graveyard shift, as an administration officer. One of my tasks was to buzz the nurse to let them know that a patient had arrived. Since the staff was so small they couldn’t spare a nurse permanently at the desk during the night.

We had a lot of patients who came in for absurd reasons. Sometimes it caused big problems and slowed down care for those who really needed it. Mysterious aches and pains were common, and often the patient would see the triage nurse, wait several hours, see the doctor, and just get referred on elsewhere, because their problem was non-urgent. I know for a fact that other admin staff- not all but some- used to make their irritation with these patients plain on arrival.

One night we had a guy come in one day saying his balls hurt. He wasn’t in severe agony or anything, they were just aching. Mentally I rolled my eyes. However I believe in being a nice guy, so externally I certainly did not roll my eyes. Instead I gave him a comforting smile and immediately called the nurse. I expected she would have a quick look and suggest he come back in the morning as had happened several times before recently.

Instead she immediately assigned him just about the most urgent triage category you can get with your heart still working and your limbs still attached. Afterwards I asked about him and she explained he had a suspected testicular torsion, and that the only safe way to treat it was immediately.

Had I rolled my eyes, or questioned his coming in, as other admin staff sometimes did, I might have left the poor man a eunuch. It didn’t take a heap of kindness to avoid it (I have no delusions about being an exceptionally kind person), just a tincture of patience and warmth.

The moral of the story is that because being wrong feels exactly like being right, you’re almost always better off being nice. Kindness covers a multitude of incompetences, including incompetence you didn’t even realise you had

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