The Importance Of Little Common, Standardized Social Exchanges
This is a really short, simple article, but it covers an idea that may make a slight, but significant, difference in how you get along with people.
Social interactions are peppered with small standardized, expected exchanges. The exact ones will differ depending on where you live and what subcultures you hang out with. Here are a few common examples:
- Shaking hands when greeting someone. The details vary depending on the country. In North America and many parts of Europe you should make eye contact, smile, and shake their hand firmly, but not too firmly, for a second or two. In other parts of the world a light or more prolonged shake may be the norm. Other places bow instead.
- How you greet a group of friends. Do you hug, casually shake hands, fist bump, air kiss, or something else?
- How you say goodbye to friends. Again, do you give everyone a light hug, shake hands, and so on?
- Polite "How are you?", "I'm good, thanks, you?", "Good" exchanges with people like cashiers. You don't literally want to know how they're doing, and would be taken aback if they started telling you about their personal problems. It's just a friendly greeting.
- Rules around toasting with drinks while sitting around a table, e.g., everyone must touch everyone else's glass, you shouldn't drink until everyone is ready, what you say before drinking, how much to drink, etc.
- Offering food or beverages to guests / accepting them from a host. In some cultures you have to do a little routine because it's considered rude for the guest to accept right away, but also for the host to offer only once or twice. The guest has to pretend to decline a few times before they finally "give in".
- Mini-rituals around competition, such as saying "Good luck" before starting the match, or shaking hands and going "Good game" afterward.
Why can some people get these exchanges wrong?
- They never learned to do them in the first place. I don't mean cases where someone is new to a country and doesn't know all the unwritten rules yet. I mean when parents never explained required bits of etiquette to their kids.
- They learned them, but no one emphasized the importance of doing them correctly (e.g., their parents never told them it's less polite to shake someone's hand in a half-hearted way).
- They're anxious about doing them. For example, they get a bit nervous about having to make eye contact when shaking hands, so they look down. They may only be minor uncomfortable with it, to the point where they're not even aware that's what's making them act that way.
- They're somewhat cynical about the idea of following standardized social exchanges. When it's time to shake everyone's hand to say goodbye, they think, "Ugh, are we doing this pointless, mindless, arbitrary song and dance again? Okay fine..." and then do it all with an unenthusiastic vibe.
Regarding feeling mini-social rituals have arbitrary guidelines, some of them do. Performing them properly isn't about what you're doing so much as being able to show you know how, and care enough, to do it. It shows you're aware of the rules, and willing to follow them for the sake of other people's comfort. It's not that important specifically how you greet someone, but if they expect one thing, and you don't do it, they can wonder what's wrong. Are you upset? Are you mad at them? Are you rude in general? (Of course, if you really aren't on board with a certain type of exchange you don't have to do anything, but there are consequences.)
Standard exchanges also let you convey what kind of person you are. Why miss that opportunity to make a good impression? You can shake someone's hand in a way that shows you're warm, friendly, and confident. Or you can change some details around and come across as disinterested and disconnected, or nervous and rushed, or arrogant and trying too hard.
From now on, when it's time to do a small, formalized social exchange, do your best to get it right. If you're not sure how some of the little rituals in your area work, make a point to observe them firsthand, or even research them or ask for help. Most of them are simple, so they won't be hard to learn once you make a point of doing it. That tweak alone won't transform your social life, but it's one less type of easily avoidable mistake you'll be making.