This summer I got the chance to take my kid to Kennywood Park, an iconic, All-American amusement park just outside of Pittsburgh.
A lot has changed about the park over the years. Some of the older rides are gone, making way for newer, faster, more thrilling experiences. The park is a little bigger these days. And sure, everything is way more expensive than I remember from previous visits growing up in the area.
Still, the place has retained enough of its character to create a strong impression on someone, especially a young kid. There’s a constant buzz of excitement in the air that hits you the moment you enter the park. The place has a unique, unmistakable smell — a mixture of cotton candy, Potato Patch fries, flowers from the park’s gardens and axle grease on the roller coaster’s rails.
I was standing with my son in line for Noah’s Ark, a great old funhouse-style walkthrough attraction for perhaps the ninth time that day when I witnessed something really amazing.
As little boys tend to do in a slow-moving line, mine writhed, shimmied, bobbed and swung on the end of my arm. Just ahead of us in line, another little boy roughly my son’s age was similarly attached to a father of his own and squirming just as much. And all at once, the boys saw each other and stopped.
“I like your face paint,” my son says, complimenting the little boy’s Hulk makeup with great and genuine excitement.
“Thanks, I like yours too,” the boy ahead replied, praising my kid’s Spiderman makeup.
The conversation rolls on for a good 10 minutes, these two learning about each other, until they’ve got a bunch of the important stuff figured out like names and hometowns and more stuff about Super Heroes that goes over my head.
And then we’re crowding into the beginning of the funhouse and the lights go down. The boys are standing next to each other, when my son’s new buddy says, “Here we go.” My kid responds in a curt affirmative, the experienced response of someone who’s been on the thing half a dozen times.
Throughout the experience, the boy and his dad are ahead of us, but the little boy is urging his dad to “wait, let them catch up.” When we walk out into the light after it’s all over, my kid is waving goodbye to his new friend, someone there’s no chance he’ll ever see again, and I find myself strangely sad the whole experience is over.
For whatever reason, I think a lot about this brief summer moment.
I think about a total stranger opening a conversation with another equally total stranger in a positive manner. I think about how such a moment started between two strangers and the words “I like your…”
I think about how the boys had nothing to gain from each other and still remained so friendly. I think about how it played out and find it pretty odd that both the adults involved — us two dads — treated the kind and friendly exchange as strange.
I think there’s a lot everyone can learn from the way kids talk to each other and how it can apply to how we can treat people we don’t know. We can have a real, genuine interest in people. We can make friends and have those friendships benefit us as adults. We can rethink strangers and recognize them for what they are — people, just like us.
If we apply some of these childlike principles to our daily lives, it could make us all better adults.
We Can Take Genuine Interest in Other People
When I think about the first thing came out of my kid’s mouth when he addressed a total stranger, I get hung up on the fact that it was complimentary. He could’ve said nothing at all or complained of how long the wait was for the ride. Instead, he saw someone like him and saw something he felt compelled to tell him.
My son’s genuine interest in the other boy’s face paint was so strong that he needed to tell him — even if he was a total stranger.
There are some adults that have this genuine interest thing down, too. My cousin Keith, a teacher in Grand Rapids, MI, is one of them.
Aside from being an amazing teacher, he’s an expert conversationalist, and in addition to listening intently to each and every word he hears from someone, he expresses real interest in the words they use.
Keith is the kind of person that should deliver every piece of bad news ever. If he was to tell you that the Apocalypse was imminent, you’d probably think, “Huh, you know, that actually doesn’t sound all that bad.”
Having a conversation with Keith is like being interviewed by a reporter who believes he is writing a feature story about the best person in the entire world.
It’s only after the conversation has ended that you realize just how little you know about Keith, which means you spent 90% of the conversation revealing details about yourself. To be clear, he could’ve been the best salesperson in Michigan — perhaps the country — but his calling was teaching so there he went.
Talking to people is an art form for Keith, but it’s not because he’s trying to sell you something. Keith cares about people. He takes an intense interest in people and genuinely enjoys getting to know them, which has translated into a huge group of loyal friends and close, reliable professional contacts.
In his 1929 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie spent a good bit of time talking about the important of taking a genuine interest in people and how it relates to being successful.
Whether you’re meeting people for the first time or catching up with your best friend, these are tips you can use to make sure you’re being a better human being.
Make Sure Your Greeting is Memorable
Plastering a smile on your face, however impossible it might seem sometimes, is the first step in making sure your meeting is enjoyable with someone. In Carnegie’s book, he says you “must have a good time meeting people if you expect them to have a good time meeting you.”
Use (and Remember) the Person’s Name
A name is vital to someone and remembering that name is critical in business, social settings, wherever. Forgetting someone’s name is akin to saying they aren’t worth remembering in the first place. If you need help, check out this really useful article.
Listen with Genuine Interest
Imagine this: You’re at a party and you meet someone for the first time who is a friend of a friend. You get to talking and eventually stumble upon that fact that you both share an interest in some obscure movie. Or maybe you both like some rare album or cutting-edge TV show.
What happens? You point at each other and start freaking out. You smile so wide it hurts and say, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one!” When we take genuine interest in people — in the things they enjoy — it puts a lot of points on the plus side of our “likeability” chart.
A really great way to let the person you’re talking to know you’re interested (and to keep the air out of the conversation) is to ask questions. It gives you a foothold in the exchange — something to build from — and keeps the other person talking.
Offer Genuine Compliments
Everyone likes to be praised for what they do, so do it often. Let people know the things you like about them, whether it’s something they do or something they’ve accomplished.
We Can Make Real Friends and Have Real Friendships
I have 1,347 connections on LinkedIn — a low number relative to the company I keep. When it comes to true friends, however, I only need to count on one hand and I can come up with the number.
Every year around Memorial Day, we all get together and hang out in Somerset County, just outside of Pittsburgh. In the summer, we get all head down to Deep Creek, MD, and spend a week together. Most of us have kids now so they play together. My few pals that are single enjoy it all as well. I feel pretty lucky to have those friends and wouldn’t trade them for all of my LinkedIn connections, with the exceptions of buddies who are also linked up with me.
But what is it about having friends that is so important?
Huffington Post columnist, noted psychologist, and published author Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes a lot about friendship and why it’s important. She says as kids, having friends helps us start our learning process and as teens, it helps us shape our romantic bonds later in life. But Krauss Whitbourne points out some pretty significant upsides to having friends as adults.
- Friends can give you a reality check.
- You’re less lonely when you have friends.
- Friends can help you define your priorities.
In his book Transform, Jeff Haden talks a lot about happiness. He points out pretty well the things that make us unhappy as well, in vivid, arresting detail. One of the things he says that leads to unhappiness is that “we have no one to call at 3 a.m.”
Thinking about that kind of statement and finding it to be true can be a pretty depressing thought. Conversely, it can be really satisfying to have piece of mind that someone will pick up the phone in the middle of the night if things get really bad.
Haden points to insecurity as the armor that shields us from having real friends and, consequently, makes us lonely. Insecurities are learned as we get older, so as kids it’s pretty easy to make friends — just like my kid did with his buddy in line for the funhouse.
Just think about the friendships we could make if we cut the insecurities out of our lives.
We Can Learn to Not Be So Afraid of Strangers
Doing conferences is pretty brutal and the one I was doing about three months ago in Cleveland was no different.
I was standing outside the city’s main conference center after a pretty long day on the show floor. My throat was the kind of dry and scratchy you get from talking to people non-stop for eight hours. I was parked three blocks away and had my booth in its case by my side. I was not looking forward to the walk to the parking garage, let alone the three-hour drive home.
I was tired and I don’t mind saying a bit cranky. Standing next to me was Mark Meisel, a colleague of mine and, at that moment, the polar opposite of my bad mood.
Mark makes his living in sales, but the thing you need to know about him is he makes friends everywhere he goes. Mark is easily the most popular guy anywhere he goes — industry conference, restaurant, dentist’s office. Mark has a way of pulling you into a conversation and capturing your imagination. At conferences, he’s the guy who everyone can’t wait to see. He fills the booth with smiling customers and keeps everyone laughing.
In fact, Mark creates this kind of company wherever he goes. It’s a thing of beauty and not everyone can do it, but Mark certainly can.
So we’re standing outside the conference center and guy in a business suit crosses our path. He’s obviously heading home from a long day at work.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Mark pipes up.
“Not to bad, how about yourself?” the stranger said flatly, slowing his walk and gazing back.
“Looking forward to relaxing after a long day,” Mark says after him.
“You and me both,” the stranger says. At this point, the guy has stopped and is turned to us, smiling wide. “Going to enjoy a cold beverage.”
“Ah man, that sounds amazing,” Mark says. “You have yourself a lovely afternoon.”
“You too,” the stranger says.
Now, this entire exchange between two strangers was wholly unnecessary. It could’ve been avoided altogether if both Mark and the stranger had, as we nearly always do, stared hard into the concrete in front of us and minded our own business. Mark never had to say anything to the man and, in nearly any situation, the guy probably wouldn’t waste a breath on a stranger.
Still, the eight-sentence exchange made the three of us smile and everyone felt better from experience. I don’t remember what the stranger looked like exactly, but the experience was memorable enough that I talk about it today.
The strange thing about the experience is normally we’re convinced that talking to strangers is something we should avoid. From a very early age, we’re taught not to talk to strangers and that makes total sense because children are vulnerable.
But when that blanket idea pervades someone’s adulthood, it can be damaging. We distrust strangers — nearly all of them — to the point where we avoid meeting new people. For whatever reason, we avoid eye contact with strangers and in no way will we engage someone we don’t know in conversation.
The common-sense security that keeps the car doors locked, windows latched, and doors dead-bolted pervades our adults lives, workplaces and social settings, forcing us to bottle up our interactions with others.
Kids will connect with kids for nearly any reason, including something as simple as a vague shared interest. They’ll start a conversation and moments later are friends.
We don’t necessarily have to greet every person we see on the street — that could lead to disaster. But we could certainly be a little less cold to each other, perhaps if only to create a memory that will last. Or, at the very least, we can brighten someone’s day.
I think back a lot on the moment in line with my kid. I’m happy to have witnessed a moment like that in being a dad.
I think what sticks with me the most, though, is how the adults in that situation — myself and the other dad — just shook our heads at the whole affair. It seems disappointing now that we just couldn’t understand what was happening and treated it like something out of the ordinary. And I think about how as they gets older, our sons will grow to distrust one another and avoid trying to connect with each other so easily.
I think about how lucky my kid would be to retain some of those traits that made it so easy to make a quick friend on a warm summer day. I think about how much better we could be if we all tried to be a little like that.
Ian Blyth writes at ianblyth.com/blog, which is appropriate.
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