I once committed the awful sin of describing somebody in a newspaper interview as "a nice guy." My editor was not pleased. "Nice? Nice!" he bellowed across the newsroom in that nuanced way editors of the era mentored novice journalists. "We don't write about nice people! Nobody wants to read about nice people and nobody wants to be described as nice! Wouldn't you be mortified if some pipsqueak called you nice?"

Well, actually I'd been called worse on more than one occasion, but I thought better than to engage him further on the issue. And his lesson held; I don't think I've accused anybody of being nice in print since that August afternoon in 1974.

Maybe I'll rethink that policy now that Dignity Health has launched a campaign called Hello Humankindness. The health system, whose market spans parts of California, Nevada and Arizona, is celebrating and promoting laudable behavior as "a strategy for bringing humanity back into health care and the world at large," according to Tricia Griffin, Dignity's director of public affairs.

Griffin told me research shows most people: (a) don't think the American health care system is very humane and (b) want to be listened to by their health care providers. Neither of those concerns is evident in the nasty debate around reform still taking place in Washington, D.C. "All the talk is impersonal, focused on cost and politics, rather than on the people who need health care," she says.

Hello Humankindess aims to enrich the conversation. "We've always been aware of the importance of human connection and human kindness to help people heal," Griffin told me. "Hello Humankindness reinforces the importance of that."

To kick off the project, Dignity and its ad agency culled YouTube for videos of real-life acts of kindness and built an ad campaign around them. If you go to the Hello Humankindness website today you'll see clips of someone stopping his car to help an elderly woman cross a busy highway, another person passing out a lunch she prepared to a homeless man, and that now-emblematic scene from a couple of weeks ago of dozens of Japanese commuters tilting a train car to free a woman who had fallen onto the tracks.

The organization is also systematically training its 56,000 employees how to effectively listen to patients and their family members, as well as to each other. Hospital chaplains, whose listening skills are at the heart of what they do, play a big role in that part of the initiative.

Most exciting may be a multifaceted effort to engage the public in recognizing and celebrating acts of kindness. The Hello Humankindness Web page invites people to tell their own stories about encounters that have lifted their spirits. Bulletin boards in Dignity Health facilities offer Hello Humankindness postcards for anyone to take down and send to a staff member who demonstrated compassion and caring. And interactive displays at bus stops will allow people to send get-well messages electronically to patients in one of the system's hospitals.

Dignity Health's leaders set the tone, Griffin says, by demonstrating kindness to employees and intervening whenever they see unacceptable behavior among staff. "We hire and fire to a human kindness standard," she says.

Because Hello Humankindness is, afterall, a marketing campaign, its success will be measured via patient and employee satisfaction surveys, brand awareness and public perception of the brand.

But let's hope its impact will be broader than that, and that similar campaigns pop up around the country. Maybe, if it works, one of these days people will actually be pleased to be called nice.