I used to hang out after hours at a local bar with a number of working class professionals in downtown Manhattan. One of them, who I’ll call John, was an African-American gentleman in his mid-fifties. He’d been laid off approximately three years before, and spent his days fairly aimlessly, casually job hunting, shuttling between one of a few bars, flirting with women many years his junior. He was incredibly charming, to the tune of two to three free drinks a night, and it was often difficult to see how he was out of work. He was one of those individuals who seemed to know absolutely everyone who had ever darkened the door of the bar, as well as at least a few details about them. He was not someone who was attached to his phone; in fact, he had a flip phone he used very seldom, and no social media accounts whatsoever.
One thing that impressed all of us about John was his incredible retention of birthdays – if you showed up there, he’d greet you with a happy birthday, and if not, you’d get a happy birthday text before midnight. Moreover, he didn’t enter people’s birthdays into his phone. He had them memorized, the way people used to do before we began to over-rely on smartphones. I remember speaking with a friend about how part of John’s charm was his knowledge of those details – that he actually believed that people were important enough to reserve gray matter for those basic details. That should not be a foreign concept, but how many of us would be unable to function if our contacts database on their smartphone was lost, or if Facebook stopped sending us those birthday reminders?
I work with another colleague – let’s call him Ryan – well-known for his charm. As a lobbyist, he goes out of his way to make everyone he encounters feel as if they are the only one in the room. He delights in getting to meet with legislative staff in the Capitol and in-district. He memorizes the details – who’s birthday is when and whose son goes to what college. Those kinds of details make him incredibly effective when it comes to persuading people of his point of view, but it’s not merely strategic. I’ve known him for a long-time, and know that he is both genuinely interested in people, and what they care about. He is very empathetic, and often has to temper that empathy so that he does not overextend his attentions. But this quality, and his use of it, again makes him very effective at his work Both John and Ryan offer a lesson for new professionals:
No matter how demanding your job, or how impersonal your organizational culture, is, cultivate the personal touch in your professional and your personal life. Do not just deal transactionally with colleagues or neighbors, greeting them with a perfunctory hello, and only engaging them within the context of a need. Ask them questions about their lives and send them a nice note on their birthday. If you see an article you know to be of interest to them online, forward it to them. If they seem upset, ask them what’s wrong, and actually pay attention (put down the phone when they talk). Care about people, and make sure people know you care.
You will meet people you genuinely dislike – it’s bound to happen. And you will have to decide for yourself the limits of your engagement with those whose behaviors cross lines you will not. There are also people who will either genuinely dislike you and / or work against you for whom proximity is a danger. Again, you will have to determine for yourself how much you engage with these individuals, although there is definitely some truth to the old adage of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.
It’s been my own experience that the benefits of approaching strangers with an openness and an interest, outweighs the potential drawbacks. You may:
Gain new friends, as well as new professional allies, if not friends. Your entire life can change based on your show of care for a single individual at the right moment. You’ll never know what that moment is, so make sure folks know you care all the time.
Deepen your professional network, which can help you at your current job as well as in landing future job opportunities.
Learn insights about a person or a group of people about whom you had pre-conceptions. We are so easily misled by a simple visual cue, a rumor, or other signal, that we often write off those who could be a blessing to us.
Obtain information that can be used strategically in a professional setting. I’m not advocating you become Francis Underwood here. Strategic intelligence, properly used, can make or break your career, but make sure you are clear on the difference between what is right and what is wrong, before you trade on information.
After spending nearly a decade and a half doing communications work, I now work in government relations. However, I still dabble in communications work, as an active freelancer. I'm also a husband and proud father of two boys.