The Power of a Smile and a Nod

Jackie Martinez (#31103)
Photo Credit: mark sebastian via Compfight

When I moved to New York (over six years ago now) from Southern California, I experienced a significant cultural shift.   I was moving from the laid back California beach culture to the hustle and bustle of New York city life.  One of the first things that I noticed was that people here are far less likely to smile and make eye contact.

This difference was even more noticeable because I was also moving from working within hotels, where a culture of hospitality and service is ingrained, to working in a hotel company headquarters, where the culture of hospitality is submerged under the typical business corporate culture.  In the hotel, you smile, make eye contact and give a warm greeting to anyone you pass by (be they customer, colleague or stranger.)  In the business environment of HQ, people tend to be a bit more “nose to the grindstone” and some of these pleasantries are left by the wayside.

I’ve tried, for the most part, to maintain my habit of smiling and greeting people whenever possible.  When I first arrived in New York, I was quite obnoxious about it.  Women from my office would squeeze by me, nervously clutching their purses, as I bounded off the elevator with a cheery, “good morning!”

I think they eventually got used to me.  And I eventually had some of my innate cheeriness dampened by the corporate etiquette of cubicle nation.

seven thirty bourke street
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Jes via Compfight

I’ve decided, however, to redouble my efforts after reading this article about the psychological sting of rejection by psychologist Todd Kashdan.  He cited a recent research study by Kip Williams on fleeting pedestrian interactions.  The researcher would walk down the street and as pedestrians passed by he would either:

  1. Glance quickly at them.
  2. Give a perfunctory nod and a smile, or
  3. Look right past them as if they didn’t exist.

According to Kashdan, “when pedestrians didn’t get any acknowledgment from the stranger passing them, they reported a substantially lower sense of connection to other people.”

I think it’s important to note that he is not talking about being rejected by a friend, a colleague or an acquaintance.  He is talking about a measurable impact on wellbeing from the glance (or lack thereof) of a complete and total stranger.

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Gustavo Gomes via Compfight

The point of Kashdan’s article was about how easily we can experience feelings of rejection and how impactful those feelings can be.  But it also made me think that the reverse is true:  How easily can we make a positive difference in other people’s lives with a simple smile and a nod?

Another mindfulness expert, Elisha Goldstein, cites “emotional contagion” as another reason why a smile and a nod can be important.  How we feel is a direct effect of how the people around us feel.  According to Goldstein, “everything you do matters” because “the way people behave is contagious and causes a ripple effect across friends of friends of friends.”

Whatever actions you take, even with strangers, will have “reverberations” that directly impact your wellbeing and ultimately “make this world a better place.”

Think about this for a moment.  You are walking down the street, staring at your Blackberry or iPhone and ignoring everyone around you and thinking it doesn’t make a difference.

But it does.  It does make a difference.  You can make a big difference.  And all it takes is a smile and a nod.

References and recommended reading:

Goldstein, E. (2012). The Now Effect: How a Mindful Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life. Atria Books.

Kashdan, T. B. (2012). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Harper Paperbacks.

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8 Responses to The Power of a Smile and a Nod

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar November 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    I really liked this article, Jeremy! How easy it is to make a difference, but how easily do we forget? We need to get with the program here – cubicle nation’s culture and values really isn’t as productive as we think, and each week brings more proof it.

  2. Tammy November 29, 2012 at 1:27 am #

    Great article. Interesting that I noticed the same thing when moving from Maui to southern California that you experienced upon moving from southern California to New York. A general lack of Aloha spirit. I try to inspire people every day with an infectious, upbeat attitude. It is difficult to maintain when it is not returned, but I continue on anyway!

  3. Jeremy McCarthy November 29, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    Tammy, I also had been in Maui before CA and noticed the same thing. The first year I was in NY I still wore my aloha shirts to the office every Friday!

  4. Louise December 7, 2012 at 2:08 am #

    A smile and a nod signify belief and acceptance. It makes your day livelier and attract all the positive vibes.

  5. Mary K December 8, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    This is so true. I moved from a sleepy South Pacific island to the East Coast a few years ago and I was struck by the avoidance of eye contact, let alone acknowledgement of another being through smiling or nodding.

    I decided that I would continue to greet, smile or at least nod as MY GIFT to another human. When I consider that behavior in terms of what I can control, it’s so much easier to perpetuate that action. And it gives me a little internal smile to think they don’t even know what I’m doing for them!

  6. Omada December 9, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    From someone coming from a different country and has been in and out of different countries and cultures, I have to give it to the Americans. You guys are friendlier than most other places. You smile, you acknowledge others, you greet- even though there might be different variations here and there across the continent. This is a cultural good that I have definitely adopted over the many years I’ve been here. It makes me feel good and hopefully brightens someones day.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy December 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks Omada, I appreciate your comments. It is interesting because sometimes I give New Yorkers a hard time because they seem in too much of a rush to be friendly, but when someone I know comes to New York from another country they invariably comment on how friendly the people are. I think many New Yorkers would argue that while you might be able to get a superficial smile and nod from someone in California, it’s the guy from New York or New Jersey who would become your buddy for life and put his life on the line for you. So I do have to give these East coasters credit for their authenticity.


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