“It’s better to be the one who smiled than the one who did not smile back”
I try to live by this motto everyday. Walk past me in the hallway and I’m going to make eye contact within 10 feet; usually with a smile. Within 5 feet expect to get some sort of greeting, whether that’s a “Good morning”, “Good afternoon” or just “Hi!” Slow down to chat and you’ll get a minute or two of my time. I’m always happy to engage someone about their clothes, their hair, their weekend, maybe about their kids. Fluffy, light stuff mostly but totally worth it.
Yet, the practice of active engagement is not one that I see widely repeated. Often, I’m saying hello to the back of someone’s head as they march to the kitchen, eyes firmly fixed on their shoes. I could add it to my list of peeves (it’s rather long already) but mostly it makes me sad. Engaging with others is a critical component of effective communication. Even though everyone isn’t interested in being the office butterfly, active engagement has many more uses beyond earning you a reputation as “most popular”.
It creates a feeling of happiness, in you and in others
Don’t you want to work in an environment where everyone is happy? Maybe that’s not the most realistic goal on the planet, but not aiming for it means it won’t happen in any form. Saying “Hello” and asking “How are you?” shows your co-workers that you care about their wellbeing. It could help them to forget whatever it was they were worrying about, even if it’s just for a second. When you cause someone to light up they take that good feeling and spread it elsewhere. A study done by Gallup found that people with friends at work are seven times more likely to be fully engaged, and that those same friendships can increase employee satisfaction by as much as 50%. Your casual greeting has much more of an impact than you think.
It breaks down perceptions
This one comes from my experience as a woman, a woman of color, and someone who has some serious RBF when she’s not smiling. It’s so easy for someone who does not share your experience or background to make snap judgments about you. Not to mention that for many people of color it may be difficult to express genuine emotion, including pleasantness, because we feel these expressions may be discouraged in the workplace. Now, I’m certainly not in the business of going out of my way to make people comfortable with women, women of color, or people with strong resting-you-know-what-face. Those hang ups are theirs to bear. But, I am in the business of challenging the perceptions that people have. Breaking out into a genuine smile, and taking a minute for a brief chat usually opens up what someone may have assumed about me. And while I don’t really care for other’s opinions of me, I’m all for fostering new perspectives. Plus it helps to break down those feelings of discomfort I may feel expressing my own, often expansive, personality.
You never know who you’ll need later
You’re being evaluated all the time and you never know which impressions are the ones that are going to really count. It won’t help that Carol from account management thinks you’re bereft in the personality department if your next big promotion is on to her team. Your co-workers and team mates can be managers and decision makers in the blink of an eye. Isn’t it better to forge connections with them now instead of when you need something from them? Idle conversation also opens the door for the tidbits that help you connect with a potential hiring manager, like if they’re a dog lover. It’s much more genuine to ask Carol about her shih tzu while you’re waiting for the elevator, than it is when she’s interviewing you. An added bonus to general chitchat is that you’ll be in a position to learn about things like seminars or other get-togethers where more networking can happen. Ever hear about the “meeting before the meeting”? This is your chance to learn about it. Keep your ears open for new opportunities while you’re chatting.
Don’t forget to reciprocate
We’ve all done it. Maybe it’s a rainy day and we’re fumbling with our umbrella on the way in. Or maybe we’re just really worried about another thing that has broken in our brand new house (guilty). But someone engages us and we’re the ones frowning distractedly off into the distance. When someone goes out of their way to say “Hello” to you, the very least you can do is give them a “Hi” back. Trust me, it’s a pretty crappy feeling to be ignored and it isn’t something we should do to others on purpose.
Ultimately, how you choose to interact with your coworkers will be a driving force behind shaping the environment that you spend 8+ hours per day in. Do you want to be known for having a ready smile and a kind word? Or as the person who never has the time or inclination to say a simple, “Hello”? Take the time to engage your office mates and see what kind of difference it can make.