The Little Things Matter

Did you smile at someone today? Did you ask a colleague how he or she was doing? Did you pay anyone a complement (no matter how small)?

If so, perhaps you made their day – and maybe your own as well.

Most of us crave recognition and a connection to those around us. We like it when others are interested in who we are or what we’re doing. Whether they give us their undivided attention or do something nice, we feel good when they treat us as individuals rather than as faces in a crowd.

Getting attention from others can also make us feel we’re not alone when things are getting us down. Whether we’re concerned about our health, family, work or anything else, it can be overwhelming – until, perhaps, we feel the warmth of another person’s smile.

Friendly engagement can also encourage real kinship in our supposedly more-connected world. Yes, it is easier nowadays to reach out to and stay in touch with friends and family using smartphones and social media, but digital interactions often fall short of those in the flesh.

Opening the door to greater understanding

In reality, there is more to communication than words alone. Being present with others and hearing and seeing what they say – and how – can encourage empathy, increase understanding, and facilitate a true meeting of the minds.

How many times, for example, have you seen a text message get lost in translation, triggering an argument or some other unexpected response? Can you remember someone saying everything was fine, but whose body language said otherwise? When people engage face to face, it can enhance clarity and lead to greater openness.

As we wrote in “Is It Them, or Is It Me?” people wear masks, sometimes unknowingly, to protect themselves or to save face. But those masks are harder to keep on when others are interested in what’s underneath. When people really care what’s on our minds, it can make it easier to tell them straight.

Small words can pack a big punch

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to make a positive difference. Whether this means smiling at a stranger, mentioning something interesting that an acquaintance said or did in the past, or offering up some spontaneous assistance, friendly little gestures can often pack a pretty big punch.

No doubt some might feel this is a bit of an exaggeration. But if you think about it, it is not all that uncommon for a little something that takes place in our own lives to assume an exaggerated importance or leave an impression – whether true or not – that lingers for some time.

If, for example, a friend happens to say the wrong thing, our minds may transform it into something bigger, creating confusion or needless anger. If the person we are chatting with keeps checking his watch, we might think he isn’t really interested in what we’re saying – when the truth may be that he is anxious about missing a meeting that can’t be rescheduled.

Sometimes, things simply don’t go over as intended. Perhaps the stranger you smiled at is having a really bad day or was raised to think such interactions should be avoided. Or maybe your friendly gesture was misunderstood as a come-on or an invasion of personal space. Regardless, if somebody is not interested, it shouldn’t be seen as a personal failure.

Double the pleasure

And should a friendly gesture prove to be welcome, some might wonder why they did it to begin with. We all have our own issues to bear – do we really need to complicate matters by bringing others into the mix? What’s the upside to smiling, especially at strangers?

Perhaps the answer comes down to science: the value of connecting with others is apparently in our genes. According to evolutionary biologists, our propensity for social bonding has been passed down from generation to generation, most likely because it helps to ensure our individual survival.

Admittedly, it can be hard to risk rejection, especially for those who are shy or introverted. But there are good reasons why you might want to go ahead and try anyway. In many cases, it simply feels good when we are nice to others. In fact, research has shown that altruistic-type behavior can trigger the same reward signals in our brains as food and sex.

Friendly interactions with others can benefit us in other ways, too. They help us grow as individuals and strengthen the interpersonal skills that are useful in all areas of life. They can also open up interesting and exciting opportunities that might otherwise fall by the wayside.

In the end, there is something to be said for doling out friendly little gestures. Your smile or your nice words may well prove to be the spark that makes someone’s day – together with your own.

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