One extra word can make a difference. A couple more can alter an attitude. A few more might change a life.
Confession time: I like making people happy. It’s something I know I’m pretty good at (and those who know me well know I rarely pat myself on the back), and has certainly been a benefit to me in my more than forty years in customer service. Whether it’s been from giving a personal touch to the services delivered to a client, been part of a celebration, publicly offered kudos to someone for something they accomplished, or providing some humor during the many times I have served as an emcee or done a little stand-up comedy, I have always found it gratifying to leave people feeling a bit better. (And, selfishly, as anyone who has ever performed comedy, the sound of appreciative laughter is incredibly soul-replenishing.)
But of all the ways I use words, none seem to make any real difference unless they are delivered unpredictably to an unsuspecting individual in a predictable situation. This is something I’ve been doing for many, many years. Allow me to illustrate:
There’s a place near my house where I often get a morning cup of coffee. Invariably, I am waited on by one of three people, two women and one man. Several years ago I was on line and paid attention to the communication dynamics between the four customers ahead of me and the woman behind the counter. She initiated each interaction with a stock greeting (as required by her manager) that included a “good morning,” “how are you,” and asked how she could help the customer. Each person ahead of me simply stated what they wanted and said nothing else, not even a “thank you” when handed their order, much less a “you’re welcome” when the woman’s stock closing words thanked the person as she handed over change or receipts. Two failed to even make more than the barest of eye contact.
It became my turn and I listened to her rote phrase. But when she was done, instead of giving my order I responded to her first question.
“I’m pretty good today, thank you for asking. How are you?” Then I paused instead of asking for the coffee. She looked bemused for a heartbeat or two and then replied, smiling, “I’m OK, thank you.”
I smiled and responded, “Glad to hear it. I’d like a large, black coffee, please.” She delivered my coffee, accepted payment and broke from the rote by saying she hoped I’d have a nice day and would see me tomorrow. She was smiling as she said this and I remember thinking how the smile seemed to include her eyes.
A couple of extra words and the briefest of additional time added to my transaction, which resulted in her smile; the line behind me wasn’t delayed more than a few seconds. One extra word can make a difference. A couple more can alter an attitude. A few more might change a life. Engagement. Human interaction. Socialization. Being human.
At the gym I go to there is a group of “usual suspects” who are there with me at five in the morning. (Despite a cut in my sleep time, I really enjoy this time of the day for my workouts.) Although people will interact, the socialization at the gym is nothing like it is later in the day (especially during the 4-7 p.m. timeframe). Conversation, such as it is, is usually limited to pleasantries delivered automatically. As people pass by you’ll hear a mumbled “G’Morning” followed by the same or a similarly grunted response.
Last week, I decided to add a couple of words and seconds. A man I’ll call Luther (not his real name) was walking from the locker room to the weight-lifting area at the far side of the gym – where I was also going. We see each other almost every morning and generally greet each other with a head bob and “G’Morning” or “How are ya?” Today was no different.
“How are ya?” Luther grunted, looking straight ahead.
“After this workout, I’ll be better than mortal women deserve,” I replied. “Brad Pitt, prepare to eat your heart out.”
Luther turned to me with an ear-to-ear grin. “Well, damn it, I’m gonna follow your workout plan today!”
Because of a business trip, he wasn’t at the gym for a couple of days after that. When he returned I saw him in the locker room with a couple of the other regulars. One said, “Where’ve you been, Luther? Goofing off?”
“Nah,” came his reply, and he pointed to me. “I followed his workout and spent two days trying to get my wife to keep her hands off me!” This followed by another grin and a wink toward me.
A couple of extra words, no big deal as far as extra time is concerned. Engagement. Live interaction. Socialization. Being human.
In a place I worked for a number of years there was someone in a different department I would see several times a week in the cafeteria line at lunchtime. After a few times of the usual mumbled semi-pleasantries, I developed a routine where she would ask me how I was and I would try to answer differently each time.
“How are you, Mike?”
“Don’t know; I haven’t looked.”
“How are you, Mike?”
“Very happy — I just found out the Witness Protection Program is relocating me to Maui.”
“How are you, Mike?”
“Compared to what?”
You get the picture. A couple of extra words that always resulted in both of us smiling; in fact, a number of other people who happened to be in line with us smiled as well. Frequently, there would be additional conversation. A few extra seconds. No big deal. Engagement. Live interaction. Socialization. Being human.
Smiles are nice, laughter is golden. But I’ve also employed this add-a-word-or-two technique to result in more serious interactions. Several months ago I was at a bank and the teller I have dealt with for a number of years greeted me with the rote “how are you.” I don’t know how or why, but I sensed something and replied, “I’m well. How are you feeling?” She looked at me with her brow slightly furrowed, inhaled deeply and said, “I don’t know. I won’t get the test results until tomorrow.” She then began processing my transaction.
I didn’t know what she was referring to – still don’t – and just responded with, “I hope the results will be favorable.” She forced a smile and completed my transaction. A couple of weeks ago I found myself in front of her for the first time since our exchange and instead of her usual greeting, she began by saying brightly, “I’m doing very well; how are you feeling today?” I smiled and replied, “Better than I was a moment ago.” Her smile broadened. A couple of words. A few extra seconds. No big deal. Engagement. Live interaction. Socialization. Being human.
At check-out lines, I frequently add some banter. As you are likely aware, cashiers often ask for one’s ZIP code or phone number. Over the past several years, I had these exchanges with different cashiers.
“May I have your ZIP code?”
“Will you give it back?” (That got me a smile.)
“Can I have your ZIP code?”
“I’ll have to check with the Postal Service; it really belongs to them.” (That got me a laugh.)
And my favorite: “May I have your telephone number, please?”
“But if give it you, what will I use?” With that, the cashier, a tired-looking woman in her forties, replied, “Tell you, what. I’ll give you my number and YOU can deal with my crazy sister!”
“No, thanks,” I responded. “I already have one of those.” We both laughed, and I then gave my number to her. A couple of words. A few extra seconds. No big deal. Engagement. Live interaction. Socialization. Being human.
There’s no great philosophic theme here. Frankly, the impetus for writing this entry came from my genuine concern that we’re losing some humanity in our communication efforts. Yesterday morning I saw several women and men pushing strollers or holding children’s hands while they were talking on their cell phones. Just today, at the local shopping mall, I saw about a half-dozen three-to-five year olds in a play area the mall has set up for young children. Two of the children were interacting; the others were by themselves. Sitting on the perimeter of the play area were eight adults, each one thumbing their smart phones. It bothered me, especially as I see this type of non-interaction all too often. The idea that children are likely imprinting this behavior bothers me. A lot.
I’m certainly not going to rail against the use of so-called smartphones; that isn’t my soapbox today. And I’m really not suggesting that everybody engage more fully with each and every interaction (I don’t do that, either). What I am saying is that more engagement isn’t a bad thing. All too often I see missed opportunities for people to connect, if only for a moment. I know many people are introverts, and others are uncaring about people they don’t know, but I honestly don’t believe these two groups make up the majority.
Bringing this full circle, all I’m really ranting about is this: One extra word can make a difference. A couple more can alter an attitude. A few more might change a life.
So, how are you feeling today? Really.