Why Are So Many People Only Friendly When They Want Something?
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Moments after the young man walked in the room I thought, "Oh, so now you want to act all friendly towards me?"
A friend owns several gyms. As a favor he asked me to interview applicants for front desk positions. He wasn't happy with how recent hires had worked out and wanted a fresh take.
The job itself is simple: greet members, show prospective members around and sign them up... but mostly do a lot of standing around and talking to other front desk employees while sneaking peeks at cell phones. (I keep telling him he should find more things for them to do.)
His front desk employees aren't trainers or fitness experts; their primary duty is to be friendly, welcoming, and likable. That's the main reason he kept hiring the wrong people. He chose candidates who had experience in client management software since that made their initial training easier, but hard skills can be taught. Attitude, personality, likeability -- those qualities are impossible teach.
So this young man walks in the office to interview with me. Big smile. Hearty handshake. Enthusiastic hello. From the start he's working hard to be on.
I'm not. I've seen him before. As he sits down I think, "You work out here, I've run into you dozens of times, and not once have you ever nodded, smiled, or in any way acknowledged I exist... even though I smile and nod every time I see you."
Maybe it's because my parents placed a premium on courtesy and politeness. Maybe it's because I live in a rural area where drivers on country roads tend to lift a hand in greeting to the people in the cars they meet.
Or, even though I’m far from naturally outgoing and gregarious – just ask anyone who’s seen me sit by myself at our kids’ sporting events – maybe it’s because smiling or nodding to people I make eye contact with just naturally feels like the thing to do.
But what isn't a "maybe" is that fewer and fewer people seem to feel the same way.
Even people who don't live in small towns tend to run into some of the same people on a regular basis. Like the guy a couple of streets away who is always walking his dog when you leave for work. Or the gal you often cross paths with when you're both grabbing a bite to eat.
We don't know those people, but we "know" them. And they know us.
Like me at the gym. There are some people I've seen dozens of times, that I've worked out beside dozens of times... but who still either look through me or look away every time I nod.
To a point -- but only to a point -- I get it when those people are a lot younger than me. To college kids 50-plus year-old men are just part of the landscape. We're not relevant. We don't matter. They're young and we're old. So I get it when they seem to purposely ignore me the first few times.
The same is possibly truer with young women. My smile or friendly nod could be interpreted as a test: "Uh-oh. What does this old man want? If I nod or smile back this guy might try to start a conversation. He might even try to hit on me. I better not encourage him." I get that too. (Yet another thing like shirts unbuttoned one button too low and Corvette convertibles that creepy guys have ruined for the rest of us; not that I want to unbutton my shirt, of course.)
Why don't more people nod to strangers or semi-strangers? Why don't more people offer that little smile of recognition? Why don't more people exchange a simple, "Hi," as they pass by? Some days I feel like I'm the only person nodding... and I feel somehow diminished and oddly stupid when people don't nod back.
It's strange because we all like to be recognized. We all crave a sense of belonging. We all want to matter. We all want to be noticed, even if just in a small way. Tell me it doesn't feel a tiny bit nice when someone you don't know recognizes you as a person they often see.
All we have to do is start nodding more. And start smiling more.
While I'm far from Emily Post, here are two standards I think makes sense. Anyone who's eyes you meet for more than a second or two gets a nod. Anyone you've seen more than twice -- even if you aren't friends and have never been introduced -- gets a smile of recognition, especially if you're in a place you regularly frequent and are likely to run into them again.
And if you need one (even though you shouldn't) here's a practical reason. The next person you need something from -- a sale, a referral, a contact, or even just a favor -- may be the same person you have, for weeks and months, treated as if he or she doesn't exist. Good luck when that person thinks, "Now you want to act all friendly towards me?"
But you shouldn't need a practical reason. Just be nice for the sake of being nice.
Every nod and every smile makes the world a slightly friendlier and happier place.
That should be reason enough.
(I know you're thinking, "So, did you hire the guy?" Yes. Instead of just thinking bad thoughts about him I brought the subject up. He told me he felt really shy and uncomfortable around people he didn't know. He said he hoped being in a job where strangers expected him to be friendly would give him the confidence to break out of his shell. I decided he deserved a chance. Luckily after a slow start he turned out to be great.)