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The Power of a Smile and a Nod

The Power of a Smile and a Nod

Today’s post is brought to us by my friend and colleague, Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP. It really caught my attention when it first appeared on his blog, which is my favorite blog of all. As we enter the Holiday Season, I think that now is the perfect time to use his recommendation and see how much impact something so simple can have. Please use unsparingly, and Happy Holidays!

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!”

seven thirty bourke street

Photo Credit: Jes via Compfight

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.

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.

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.

  • C-plank

    I can really appreciate this post – I personally recognized the power of a smile and a nod due to holiday shopping. As annoying as store clerks might seem when they hound you asking if they can help, I found myself being equally annoyed if I entered a store and wasn’t greeted with a smile or a nod – that acknowledgment means something in so many different settings and I can see why it not only affects one’s wellbeing, but in my case, my shopping experience.

MJ Shaar – in 20 seconds


MJ is one of the most sought-after experts blending positive psychology and health promotion. She spent over 15 years coaching, teaching, speaking, researching and testing smart health habits. Marie-Josée Shaar received her undergrad at McGill University in Organizational Behavior, followed by a Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. She's certified as a Wellness Culture Coach, a Personal Trainer, and a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant.

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