The little connections really count. This was struck me again in reaction to a Giles Coren tweet, then column, about people not waving or nodding to cars/bikes when crossing the road. I always do this and my six year old O., has taken to copying this often in what seems to be a slightly over the top way which sparks chuckles. When we do, we have this little positive connection with the driver or cyclist.
It chimes with the adage to look how people treat serving staff, taxi drivers etc. not their peers and seniors.
Why is this the case? It requires a focus on others and reciprocation. It makes us understand each other as individuals.
It’s alluded to in in Emily Esfahani Smith’s book Power of Happiness (previous blog post here on second order happiness, purpose, and Artistotle’s Eudaimonia), seemingly it’s because about the positive feeling that connections give us. I think you have a related but different lens on this through Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (blog on a brilliantly argued defence of the importance of creativity in our increasingly money-orientated society) here a connection is a gift, and the wave is a small part of the gift back.
Take this story from Smith’s book:
“Jonathan Shapiro, an entrepreneur in New York, has a regular morning routine. Every day on his way to work, he buys a newspaper from the same street vendor, whose newsstand is by a busy subway station on the Upper West Side. Though both Jonathan and the vendor have every incentive to rush through the exchange of goods for money and get on with their days, they always take a moment to have a brief conversation.
Buying a newspaper, a cup of coffee, or groceries can feel businesslike and impersonal. Many of us are so caught up in our own lives, so rushed and preoccupied, that we acknowledge the people we are interacting with only instrumentally—as a means to an end. We fail to see them as individuals. But Jonathan and the vendor—even with hundreds of people streaming by them at the busiest time of the day in one of the largest cities in the world—take a moment to slow down. They break outside of their cocoons and form a brief bond with one another. Each of them lets the other one know that he is heard, seen, and appreciated—that he matters. Each of them helps the other one feel a little less alone in a vast and impersonal city.
One day, when Jonathan went to buy the paper, he realized he had only big bills. The vendor could not make change for Jonathan’s $ 20 bill, so he smiled widely and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll pay tomorrow.” But Jonathan tensed up and shook his head. He insisted on paying for the paper, so he went into a store and bought something he did not need so he could make change. He handed the vendor a dollar and said, “Here you go, to be sure I don’t forget.”
In that instant, the dynamic of their relationship changed. The vendor reluctantly took Jonathan’s money and drew back in sadness. “I did the wrong thing,” Jonathan later said. “I didn’t accept his kindness. He wanted to do something meaningful, but I treated it as a transaction.” The vendor isn’t the only person, of course, who has felt cut down by rejection. Psychologists have shown that social exclusion—even in the context of an interaction with a stranger during a research study—is a threat to meaning. In one experiment, undergraduates were brought into the lab, broken into small groups, and instructed to socialize with one another for fifteen minutes. Then each student was led into a separate room where he was told to nominate two of those people to interact with again. Those nominations were not used. Rather, half of the students were told, by random assignment, that everyone wanted to see them again. The other half were told that not even a single person did. You can imagine how those responses made the students feel. Those who were made to feel rejected and left out—made to believe they did not belong—were significantly more likely to say that life in general was meaningless.
Other research shows that rejected participants also rate their own lives as less meaningful. Perhaps surprisingly, psychologists have also found that social rejection can make both the rejected and the rejecter feel alienated and insignificant. As Jonathan learned on a crowded street corner of the Upper West Side, the smallest moment of rejection can knock the meaning out of a connection as easily as the smallest moment of belonging can build it up. After Jonathan dismissed the vendor’s bid for mutual trust, both of them left each other that morning feeling diminished. Fortunately, the two men were able to restore their relationship. The next time Jonathan saw the vendor, he brought him a cup of tea. And the next time the vendor offered Jonathan a newspaper, Jonathan thanked him and humbly accepted his gesture of kindness. They continue to share a quick conversation each day.
Jane Dutton, an organizational psychologist at the University of Michigan, coined the phrase “high quality connections ” along with her colleague Emily Heaphy. Dutton studies the ways we interact in the workplace, and she has found that our connections there have a significant effect not just on our experience at work, but also in our lives as a whole. Given that work is where many people spend most of their waking hours, that shouldn’t be too surprising. But it means that if we don’t feel a sense of belonging on the job, both our jobs and our lives will feel less meaningful. In one study, Dutton and her colleagues interviewed the cleaning and janitorial staff at a large hospital in the Midwest.
They chose to focus on cleaners because they are vital to the operation of a hospital but are often ignored and disrespected. Their so-called dirty work is not generally valued by society. People talk about how meaningful it is to be a nurse who cares for the sick or a doctor who saves a person’s life; they rarely talk about how meaningful it is to clean toilets. Dutton and her colleagues randomly selected twenty-eight cleaners and interviewed them about their job responsibilities, how significant they believed their work to be, and their relationships with other people on the job, including doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors. The researchers were particularly interested in whether the cleaners felt respected and valued by their peers—whether their belonging needs were being met. The cleaners told some two hundred stories about their time at work. When the researchers analyzed those stories, they discovered the powerful role that belonging plays in how people experience their jobs. Brief interactions, they found, could be deeply hurtful. When cleaners felt devalued by their colleagues, their work felt less meaningful. The most common way the cleaners felt devalued was by being ignored.
Doctors were particularly egregious offenders. One cleaner named Harry said, “The doctors have a tendency to look at us like we’re not even there, like, you know, we’ll be working in the hallways, and you know, no recognition of what you are doing whatsoever.” A cleaner might be sweeping the hallway, but a group of doctors is standing in the way, which means, as Harry said, that “you have to ask them to move, every day, the same doctors every day.” Several other cleaners told a similar story. The doctors, the cleaners felt, had “no regard” for them or what they were doing. It was like they were telling the cleaners that the cleaners do not exist and that their work does not matter. As a cleaner named Sheena told the researchers, “Sometimes you get the impression like, you know, they think they are more important than you are. And I mean their job is very important, but you know, cleaning the hospital is very important, too.”
The cleaners spoke often about how doctors and nurses, whom they would see and work with every day, would walk right past them in the hallway without saying hello. One cleaner said that being ignored made her feel like “an invisible person that sort of floats around on the outside looking in.” Another spoke of how the patients and their visitors disregarded them, too. Visitors, he said, often walked right through an area of floor he was mopping. “I think that this indicates they don’t care about the cleaning people,” he said. Thankfully, those were not the only types of interactions the cleaners had. A “Good morning” from a patient could be packed with meaning. “They look at you like a person, you know?” said Kevin about patients who would acknowledge him as he cleaned their rooms.
Another talked about how meaningful it was when the patients expressed gratitude. “They are not required to say thank you,” he said. It’s his job to clean their rooms, after all. “I guess,” he said, “I feel appreciated by these things.” Positive experiences with colleagues, too, helped the cleaners feel a sense of belonging. One cleaner named Ben told a story about coming to work with a terrible stomachache. He was trying to sweep the floor, but the pain was so overwhelming that he bent over his broom in distress. A doctor came up to him and asked what was wrong, and Ben told him. The doctor told Ben he might have an ulcer (and, as it turned out, he did). It was kind of the doctor to stop and talk to Ben, but Ben’s story focused on how the doctor treated him after that encounter. Every time the doctor saw Ben in the hospital, he would say, “Hey, Ben, how are you doing? Is everything better?” The doctor showed concern for Ben, and that made Ben feel valued. Another cleaner named Corey talked about how the nurses he worked with made him feel like part of the team. When they would move patients from bed to bed or room to room, he would help them—and they, in turn, included him not just in professional tasks, but also in social gatherings: “When they have potluck or a dinner, or doughnuts, or rolls or whatever, or coffee, they invite me…. It lets me know that they appreciate me and that I’m likable.” When the hospital cleaners experienced these high quality connections, their relationship to their work changed.
They saw themselves as caregivers rather than merely janitors, and they felt more closely tied to the mission of the hospital, which is to heal patients. Small inconsiderate acts, on the other hand, made them reevaluate the significance of their work, their ability to perform their tasks competently, and, even more gravely, their own worth as people. The beauty of a high quality connection approach is that you don’t have to overhaul the culture at your workplace to create meaning. Anyone, in any position, can change how they feel, and how their coworkers feel, simply by fostering small moments of connection. The results would be transformative. Dutton has found that high quality connections can revitalize employees emotionally and physically, and help organizations function better. They lead employees to feel more energized and engaged at work, make them more resilient when they encounter setbacks or frustration, and help teams work together more cohesively. Feeling like part of the group can make even the most mundane tasks seem valuable and worth doing well.
Yes, brief interactions can be demeaning—but they can also be dignifying. We can’t control whether someone will make a high quality connection with us, but we can all choose to initiate or reciprocate one. We can decide to respond kindly, rather than antagonistically, to an annoying colleague. We can say hello to a stranger on the street rather than avert our eyes. We can choose to value people rather than devalue them. We can invite people to belong.
Close relationships and high quality connections have an important feature in common: both require us to focus on others.”