Monday, 29 July 2013

Be gracious

My journey to work this morning gave me pause for thought.
I was on the train, standing, and a seat came free.  Rather than performing the usual London commuter stampede to grab it as quickly as possible, I offered it to the woman standing next to me.  She took it, and merely grunted what I took to be her thanks.  No eye contact, no smile.  Granted, it was early in the morning, and she may not have been quite awake yet, so I didn’t take this personally (you’d end up in a right old mess if you took everything that happens on public transport personally!), but it did start me thinking.  What is it that makes some interactions so unsatisfying, whilst other human contact has the ability to brighten your mood for a whole day?
Take, in contrast, the interaction with the chap in Marks and Spencer who was on the till when I paid for my salad.  Eye contact, smiled, said hello.  Took my money and said bye when I left.  No artificial wishing me a nice day, just authentic friendliness and pleasant attitude.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the product of customer service training – as usually the service in M&S is as pleasant as being slapped about the face with a wet fish.
The difference isn’t just good manners, or being ‘nice’.  Although good manners definitely have something to do with it.
The best way I can think of to describe it is ‘being gracious’.  By which I don’t mean acting like the queen, or implementing the sort of ‘gracious living’ upmarket homes magazines and grand hotels sell to us, but instead bringing a feeling of grace to all our interactions.
If you look up the word "gracious" in the dictionary, you'll find the definition includes words and phrases such as "kindness", "merciful", "compassionate", "unaffected politeness", "generosity of spirit", "elegance", "showing regard for others in manner, speech and behavior".The woman on the train wasn’t gracious. She wasn’t particularly rude – she followed the normal protocol of saying thank you.  But she didn’t leave me feeling good, which is what I hope would have happened had we both been gracious in the interaction.  Maybe it was ungracious of me to expect more –  but it certainly would have been had I pulled her up on her behaviour.
But just think how much more pleasant the interaction would have been had she made eye contact, smiled briefly and clearly thanked me.  Scarcely any more effort required, but an entirely different feeling left from the interchange.  Just like the guy serving me in M&S.
These questions of manners and interpersonal behaviour are complex, and I’m sure that each of us reacts in a different way, depending on upbringing, expectations, culture and a whole host of other things.  But it’s something I find fascinating, and that I’ll be exploring further in future blog posts, including thoughts on how to be gracious in specific situations.
What are your thoughts on this?  How can we best smooth the wheels of human interaction in our crowded urban environments?

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