I take a walk almost every morning. Most days there are a handful of early exercisers out on the road with me. We typically nod or smile at each other in passing, but there is very little interaction and I'm okay with that. A quick wave hello is completely appropriate in this setting and more than enough engagement considering the time of day and my general lack of grooming!
Other types of interactions weigh more heavily on the social scale, however, when expectations are different and a simple glance might be misinterpreted as a snub or perhaps an even worse offense. Visions of high school hallways come to mind, the cool kids deliberately ignoring less popular types and the feelings of inadequacy that inevitably ensue. Flash forward to a business event where a misplaced or misunderstood social cue has the potential to cause a full-blown relationship disaster!
Let's face it, not everyone is comfortable interacting with strangers. Our parents always told us to watch out for “Stranger Danger” and these old habits are hard to break!
While personal safety issues should always take precedence, being too reserved in a new setting could result in behavior that’s overly exclusionary. Studies have shown that there are measurable mood benefits to engaging with people we haven’t met before. In a recent Huffington Post article and video, Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, reported that when we approach strangers with kindness, we tend to be happier and less moody than if we're just efficiently going about our days and ignoring other people.
All this stems from our universal human desire to be acknowledged by others. Our search for recognition, even validation, is hard-wired into our brains, no doubt due to the type of competitive, Type A society we live in. Receiving approval from others, especially from those we respect and admire, feeds our ego and solidifies our sense of purpose. This view is reinforced in an article in Psychology Today that says, “Approbation from others whose authority we respect serves to verify our sense of inner worth.”
Understanding why we seek acknowledgement from others then leads us to the next obvious question: Why doesn’t this validation happen as often as we’d like? Again, Psychology Today offers the following explanation:
1. If the person you are seeking affirmation from was “recognition-deprived” earlier in life, they may be stingy with praise to others. I won’t get into all the psychological reasons for this, but suffice it to say, their emotional baggage might be what’s keeping them from being generous in their acknowledgement of others.
2. Highly competitive people may be averse to recognizing the achievements of others because they feel as if doing so would mean admitting their own inferiority.
3. Acknowledging others’ accomplishments might be held back if the actions are equal to baseline expectations. In other words, why should praise be given to a person for meeting basic output?
4. Sometimes acknowledgement is held back to keep the other person humble and to prevent conceit or egotism.
5. Finally, some people just don’t understand the power of acknowledging others in a positive way. They just don’t get it.
These views are supported in a commencement address at Goddard College last year, in which speaker and fellow graduate, Christine Brubaker spoke to her peers on the power of acknowledgement. She suggests, “When we acknowledge we gain understanding. We seed the potential of another possible deeper connection where more discovery and learning can take place. Where we gain knowledge.”
My purpose in writing this post is to raise our combined consciousness around how acknowledging others can make a positive difference for everyone involved. When we are willing to take a risk and engage with someone new, we never know what good things might follow!