My guess is that you have had this experience before. You’re walking down the street. Your eyes are looking forward and you notice a person coming your way. You prepare to say “good morning,” “hello,” or something similar, only to have the other person drop their eyes to avoid contact. You may choose to acknowledge him or her anyway, to which you get a half-hearted reply or no response at all. And if the person is walking past you from behind, you can be almost certain that no exchange will occur. Similar scenarios may play out during your morning jog, in a workplace elevator, or in many other social contexts.
If you’re like me, these interactions can be disturbing. You get the feeling that you are being viewed as a burden to avoid, much like a strewn garbage can or an electric pole, not a person to engage or even acknowledge. Moreover, you feel robbed, having lost out on the opportunity to exchange pleasantries and share positive energy. Perhaps you also worry that you may become like “them,” figuring that if you can’t be them, you may as well join ‘em and develop your own form of tunnel vision in public spaces.
The indignant amongst us may blame the whole thing on rudeness or poor manners. Others may chalk it up to cultural norms, particularly in larger urban communities where life is just too busy (real or imagined) and there are just too many people around (real or imagined) to take a personal interest in everyone that you encounter.
While these explanations may be true to some degree (there’s no denying that the aforementioned conduct occurs in some geographic areas more than in others), I believe that a lot of this behavior is universal, and stems from a few underlying sources that are not location specific: confidence and energy (or the lack thereof) and a perception of need.
- What’s the risk? – Confidence reflects our personal sense of self. Are we comfortable in our own skin? Are we willing to risk communication with someone that we don’t know? What if they don’t respond? What if they think that we’re crazy? Confidence also means that we believe deeply in our ability to make a difference in and uplift someone’s day, even a complete stranger.
- Low energy – Energy is the power that lies within each of us. We bring it to every situation that we are in. When our energy is high, we fell that we can change the world. When it’s low, it saps the wind out of everyone’s sails. Energy can be hard to come by, particularly first thing in the morning, when we’re still waking up and running off to our workplace or other destination. When people hurry by without even a feigned recognition, they are often simply too low on their personal energy stratum to engage others positively.
- How might I gain? – We often look at conversations based on perceived value. What do I stand to benefit from talking to you? Will it create new financial opportunities ? Might it enhance my social standing? While we would all agree that positive engagement can be self-rewarding on many levels, including boosting our own energy and gaining the satisfaction that I put a smile on someone’s face, these factors may not be on many people’s minds as they carry on their day.
The pessimist may look at this and say that there’s no hope in making a widespread dent in this regard. And they may be correct. A wise rabbi once said that when he was young, he thought that he would change the world. He saw that this was impossible, so he set his sights on improving his town. That, too, proved quite difficult. He then focused on his synagogue. Eventually, his sights narrowed further to his family, and finally to himself.
We can’t change others, particularly those that we don’t know. (Do you really think that the guy who recently cut you off on the highway will cease from doing so the next time, even if you kept your hand on the horn to demonstrate your displeasure?) However, we can lead by example, and demonstrate the positivity of the experience. Haven’t we all met people that inspired us by their demeanor, their energy, their enthusiasm? Don’t we all feel a rush when we encounter someone who is genuinely likeable and magnetic?
View each encounter as an opportunity to engage and to inspire. But don’t do it with any expectation of reciprocity. Just consider what you stand to gain in terms of boosting your own energy and hopefully helping someone’s day start off even better. You never know, maybe that person will even “pay it forward,” and begin a cycle of positivity that can have significant implications on many others that you will never encounter.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting (ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.