Ask the security guard his name. Compliment the neighbor you think you have nothing in common with. Introduce yourself to the nanny that no one is talking to.
Of course, we all know that we should be nice to everyone. But we get busy. And stressed, and tired. We feel we only have enough energy for being friendly to, well, our friends, and colleagues, and the people that matter, like bosses and teachers. So we rush through our days, doing enough to get by and shooting a quick smile or a hello, without really making a connection or finding out who someone is.
One of my first lessons in the power of friendliness I learned at my first job out of college, and it didn’t come from my boss. A friend from college, Chris, was working at the same non-profit in New York. He had been at the organization longer than me and was a manager of a team.
Even though he was more important than me, he put a lot of energy into being friendly to even the lowliest people at the organization. When he went down to the mailroom, for example, he wouldn’t just whiz in, deal with his package, grab his office supplies, and get out. He took the time to find out people’s names, smile and say hello, and chit-chat a minute.
One day Chris needed to overnight an important document, but it was after-hours and the file room was locked. None of his peer co-workers had the key, but he had connections. He called Manny in the mailroom who used his keys and goodwill towards Chris to get the job done.
If Chris has been the aloof executive, or the somewhat-snobby college grad like me, you can guess that his call would either have been answered with a, “Sorry, it’s too late,” or not answered at all.
Connections Go Both Up and Down
When someone says, “I can pull some strings,” we usually imagine a phone call to some fat cat with a cigar in a corner office. Yet there are a lot of people at the foundation of our society that have power. One could argue that they’re holding the whole thing up. They’re running our communication networks, delivering our mail, serving our food, fixing our houses and roads, keeping our neighborhoods safe, guarding our money, and caring for our children.
One of my favorite children’s books is The Little Blue Truck. (Since my boys only want to read books about things with wheels, this story gets a lot of traction in our house.) Little Blue is an old-fashioned pick-up who chugs through the countryside, slowing down to say hello to each of the animals along the way. It starts raining, and suddenly a big dump truck barrels through, pushing everyone aside to get to his job in time. He gets stuck in the mud, but no one comes when he calls for help. But when the Little Blue Truck gets stuck too, all the animals come running to rescue him.
Being nice to everyone in the entire spectrum of our lives means we are strengthening our networks, building relationships, and spreading good will. And when we direct this energy to the people we see regularly in our communities — workplace, school, neighborhood — then we really have a chance to create bonds that will lead to tangible rewards.
Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom. –Theodore Rubin, psychiatrist and writer
Connecting Makes Us Happy
But being warm and open didn’t just mean that Chris could get things done without power or money. He seemed happier. His well-oiled social network made going to work a more fulfilling and fun experience.
As Gretchen Rubin discovered in her Happiness Project, “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
I’m a little shy, so going up to people I don’t know does not come naturally to me. Over the years, l have learned to force myself to crawl out of my comfort zone. If I can make someone smile, it makes me feel good about myself. I then get more positive energy that I want to share. It becomes an endless feedback loop of friendliness and mutual respect.
Sometimes we decide not to reach out to someone or invite them over because we’re too tired or not feeling well or our house is a mess. Yet the irony is that connecting with people actually gives us energy, makes us forget about our aches and pains, and inspires us to whip our house into shape.
Perhaps this is because our deepest desires are to belong, to be loved and accepted by others, as Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly. We need each other. We are wired to connect, says Brown.
You Can’t Lose
If being friendly and open to everyone around us is natural and good, then why aren’t we all doing it?
In the old days, when cash was tight and communities were small and stable, people used to depend on each other for everything from harvesting crops to taking care of each other’s children. Rural communities still function this way today.
But most of us live in cities and suburbs, and in this time of relative affluence, a lot of us can buy what we need. Money weakens social ties by eliminating our dependence on others and crowding our spaces with material things.
Being nice to everyone is the right thing to do. But it’s also insurance against a rainy day. Because it will rain and we will get stuck in the mud. We should prepare for the worst, yes, by keeping an emergency fund, but also by strengthening our relationships — all the way down to the mail carrier and the crossing guard.
People who have strong relationships are happier and live longer, says study after study. Loneliness can cause all sorts of problems, including deteriorating emotional and physical health. Generous people have even been found to get more promotions and earn more money.
Maybe someone you reach out to will eventually help you get a job, recommend an inexpensive handyman, or lend you space heaters when your furnace goes out. Maybe someone you were nice to will rescue your cat, take care of your yard when you’re sick, give you a bag of hand-me-downs, or bring you groceries when you can’t walk. And you will do the same.
So many gods, so many creeds, So many paths that wind and wind, While just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs. -Ella Wheeler Wilcox, poet (1850-1919)
I continue to be touched by the kindness of strangers. The everyday generosity of people fills me up and inspires me to give more of myself. And that’s a contagion that I want to help spread.