Spring 2020

Intention Matters for Kind Communication

Ben’s Bells founder will research how to help people practice kindness during difficult conversations.

A simple, flower-shaped sticker, stamped with the words “Be Kind,” has become a familiar sight on many Tucson vehicles. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work being done by the local nonprofit Ben’s Bells to promote kindness in the community.

The organization, which is committed to educating people about the importance of kindness, was founded by Jeannette Maré ’89, who says the kindness of others was essential to her healing after her son died 17 years ago.

Maré has now decided to take a deeper look at kindness by making kind communication the topic of her dissertation research at the University of Arizona.

Maré, who serves as Ben’s Bells’ chief kindness officer, has enrolled as a doctoral student in the Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She plans to research how best to equip people with the skills they need to practice kindness during difficult conversations.

“In my generation, you were taught not to talk about things like race, religion, politics or grief, but if we don’t learn how to talk about these things, how can we expect to solve any of these problems?” Maré says. “I’m looking into what it takes to get people into the frame of mind that they need to be in to learn how to have these difficult conversations.”

Her work will be advised by communications professor Kory Floyd, whose research focuses on the communication of affection.

“A consistent finding in my research is that people profit both by receiving affection from others and also by giving it,” Floyd says. “By encouraging kindness, Jeannette’s work benefits not only the recipients of that kindness, but also those who provide it.”

Maré is not a new face on campus. Her father was a professor, and Maré earned her bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the university. She later worked as a sign language interpreter for the Disability Resource Center, and in 2000 she joined the faculty, teaching linguistics and sign language interpreting for about a decade.

After running the nonprofit Ben’s Bells for 16 years, Maré decided in 2019 to reduce her hours with the organization so she could return to school. The transition was made possible in part by the hiring of a new executive director for Ben’s Bells: Helen Gomez, who previously had served as director of external and alumni relations for the university’s College of Humanities.

Maré has always loved academia, so a return to the classroom came naturally for her. Yet it was personal tragedy that led her to the research she’s pursuing today.

Why Kindness?

In 2002, Maré’s life changed forever when her 3-year-old son, Ben, died unexpectedly.

To help her through her grief, she began doing ceramics with family and friends in her backyard. What started as a therapeutic exercise soon grew into something much larger.

On the first anniversary of Ben’s death, hundreds of handmade ceramic bells were hung throughout Tucson in his memory, with the goal of spreading a message of kindness — something that had been critical
to Maré and her family in their healing process.

The effort led to the formation of Ben’s Bells, which continues to distribute bells in Ben’s memory. Any passerby who finds a bell is invited it to take it home, with a reminder to “Be Kind.”

“We need to encourage people to prioritize kindness, because it is vital for pretty much everything else we do,” Maré says. “I use the analogy of a beach ball in the air: If the beach ball is kindness, Ben’s Bells’ job
is to keep that thing in the air. We want to keep reminding people and keep talking about it.”

“The reason I wanted to study communication is because it’s how we enact kindness. People may have the intention to be kind, but it is not enough. There needs to be a skill set that allows us to produce a message — verbally or nonverbally — that actually results in support.”