If, like me, you are a Sinatra fan, this heading probably got you humming his classic Strangers in the Night, pondering all the possibilities inherent in that exciting first exchange of glances with a stranger.
Well, as it turns out, a total stranger looking us in the eye (or not) can have a profound effect on how we feel. In a previous series I discussed the effects of a simple eye rolling gesture on the person at the receiving end of that gesture. It is no different than if someone dropped a hammer on their finger — the brain’s pain centre gets fired up. And if you’ve attended any of our sessions or followed this blog for a while, you already know that in the workplace, seemingly inconsequential behaviours such as ignoring someone by, say, not saying or responding to a hello, actually does matter.
But what happens when a complete stranger looks at you as if you were thin air?
This is what one of my favourite researchers, Prof. Kipling Williams of Purdue University and some of his ostracism-focused collaborators asked themselves. In yet another of their mischievous and illuminating studies, they had a research assistant walk along a well-populated path on a university campus, pick an unsuspecting passerby, and then do one of three things as they walked toward this person: they met that person’s eyes, or met their eyes and smiled, or looked in the direction of the person’s eye level but focused their gaze past the person’s ear, looking at them as if they were thin air. A second experimenter then stopped the person and asked, “Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?”
And what did they find? They discovered that acknowledgement through looking someone in the eye matters, and that this is true regardless of whether it is accompanied by a smile or not. Those who received eye contact — with or without a smile — felt less disconnected than those who were looked at as if they weren’t there. It may have had only a fleeting, momentary effect, but the impact was certainly there. After all, being ignored is the first step in what our reptile brain understands as a very real risk . . . social exclusion is the first step to ostracizing us and removing us from the community, something that in ancient times meant that we would be left to die on our own as a result of being denied access to the resources and protection that community living provides.
Thin-air glances on a university campus path are, in the grand scheme of things, not really that important. But random, fleeting encounters sometimes do in fact impact us profoundly, in positive or negative and often unexpected ways. (On the positive side of the equation, I love the video below.)
But the workplace is another matter altogether. Here the stakes are much higher. The workplace is a community of humans, and as such it is inevitably a place where the internal dramas of our needs for connection and belonging play out and where our sense of self and worth gets affirmed — or battered — daily. A look, a smile, an acknowledgement, can make a world of difference. And the absence of these can be upsetting and in some cases even devastating.
So here’s my question to you: what difference can you make to others’ experience? In what ways are you willing to step up to the plate (starting with the person in the desk right beside yours) to make a positive difference?
As always, contact me directly if you’d like to make your work environment more civil.
And for those who are off for summer holidays, have a great time, AND I hope you won’t miss our July 7th blog post, where I will be sharing exciting news with you!