In 2019, I went to see “Parasite,” and since then, one scene has left me haunted. The Kim family are sitting around their small table, eating noodles and chatting about their new affluent employers, the Park family. The father remarks that the matron of the Park family is nice despite being rich. And then his wife says something that has stuck with me for the last three years:
“She’s nice because she’s rich.”
This line uncovered a truth that I had always been innately aware of — kindness is costly. It is so much easier to be nice when you are rich because you have so much less to lose. Poverty creates need, and need creates desperation. It is easy to be unkind when one is desperate. When choosing to be kind is also choosing between being fed that day or not, kindness will not be chosen. The Park family can afford to give away fruits and clothing items. The Kim family cannot. If they did, they would starve and freeze. Kindness is conditional on how much you can afford to lose.
What has made me think of this recently have been my friends and their internships. I have noticed that a lot of my friends who came from more wealthy backgrounds chose more ethical companies. They are interning at places that line up with their own moral compasses. A lot of them chose to work at nonprofits. However, my friends who come from a lower socioeconomic background have a tendency toward choosing the best offers. This has only been what I have observed and is purely anecdotal data, but these observations have further solidified my understanding that wealth makes kindness easy.
I think it is commendable that my wealthier friends are making potential career sacrifices to help people and bring good into this world. I deeply admire them and am proud of myself for being able to find people that kind. However, I also think it is much easier for them to make this choice. Because they have the foundation of financial stability, they are allowed to make career decisions that my less wealthy friends cannot. They are allowed to choose the pace of their career progression and they are allowed to flounder. They can be good and kind and still get their needs met. Their survival is not dependent on their success. They have a safety net. These choices to be ethical and moral are not costly to them in the same way they would be to others.
My friends who have come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are generally much more ambitious than my other friends. Their success determines the quality of their future. This immense burden motivates them to strive for the best. A few of them have told me that they feel uneasy about working with unethical companies, but they cannot afford to lose out on the major career boost these companies can provide. Their social mobilization is dependent on their success, on them making choices that put them first. For them, the cost to be kind and ethical is much higher than it is for wealthier students.
I had a tendency to judge cutthroat people. When people put themselves first, I always thought a bit less of them. But since internalizing the cost of kindness, I have become more understanding. Choosing to make unethical decisions does not make someone selfish or unkind. It is hard to be ethical and kind. It incurs major costs for an individual, especially when they do not have the net of financial security to fall into.
Even still, I sometimes still make judgments about the choices that my friends make. And I have to slow down and remind myself that kindness is costly. These costs are something not everyone can afford. It is good to be kind about unkindness.