Have you ever noticed how the tiniest of interactions, even those with a total stranger, can impact your entire day?
Recently, as I ran errands, I started to notice all the incidental interactions with those around me. Maybe it’s partially due to the fact that my social interactions have been limited the past two years, inhibited further by masks, but I have been amazed at how split-second exchanges have such an enormous effect on my mood. All it took was what I perceived to be a scowl from a complete stranger and suddenly I was mad. It was as if, without warning, an ominous thunderstorm started brewing just ahead on what was previously a cloudless, blue-sky day.
Conversely, I have felt the opposite effect when someone has taken the time to offer a polite greeting or even a small smile. The small gesture would cause me to feel noticed, empowered, encouraged. Their kindness immediately brought back sunshine and optimism to the day’s outlook, reminding me the world isn’t always such a stormy place. A smile has power through its ability to invite generosity and goodwill toward others. This can make the future feel less daunting, less lonely, more hopeful. That is a major feat of accomplishment for a small, seemingly insignificant, smile.
After thinking about the impact of these small moments, I realized it fits with the reality that I have always been responsive to the emotions of others. Whenever I interact with someone, even if it’s just the briefest of exchanges, I’m always amazed at how strongly their disposition, or even simply my perception of their disposition, can impact the rest of my day. Take, for instance, a dismissive temperament or moody facial expression. Even if I can rationally accept that someone’s grumpiness likely had nothing to do with me, I will still justify that it is what initiated my subsequent irritability.
Of course, it is unfair to blame others for their impact on my mood when I am certain that I also, at times, give off a less-than-warm and friendly vibe when I’m out and about. I don’t intend to be rude. It’s just that I might be completely consumed with the task at hand or stressed with the limited timeframe I have to accomplish an errand. Other times I’m exhausted from a long day after a sleepless night and it just doesn’t cross my mind to be more intentionally polite. Honestly, sometimes I’m just mentally checked out and simply not paying attention to the people around me. Despite the variety of reasons for my occasional stormy disposition, it is never with the goal of offending others; I’m just sometimes caught up in my own little world.
That is when the obvious occurred to me: other people are just like me. I have to believe that, in general, people are not walking around with the intention of storming on other people’s days. They are likely just distracted or stressed and don’t mean any ill-will with their less-than-sunny facial expression or their seemingly crabby attitude. Maybe they are just having a bad day. Beyond the typical day-to-day stressors, maybe they are struggling. Often, we don’t know what is going on behind the scenes of someone’s life; maybe they recently received bad news, they’re sick, exhausted, depressed, or lonely. Or, maybe they’re simply unaware of their frown or seemingly dismissive attitude. In the end, we never know what someone else is going through at that very moment. And the way life goes, we’re all dealing with something.
As I continued to think about the complexity of life and the impact even minor stressors can have on our interactions with others, I thought back on the number of instances where I’ve been perturbed by someone’s seeming lack of regard for manners, only to later learn the individual was dealing with a personal tragedy, navigating a health crisis, or had just received difficult news. And so, I am working on shifting my natural inclination towards extending grace and empathetic understanding rather than annoyance over a perceived less-than-courteous attitude. I am practicing first extending grace over the possible what-ifs someone might be facing, rather than condemning the interaction as another sign of the obvious degradation of life and the hopelessness of the future.
It is easy to fall into the trap of absorbing the emotions of those around us. Because, although we don’t always admit it, I think most of us crave positive interactions with those around us. And when the interactions are strained, it can make the day feel disheartening. Lately, it feels that many interactions are strained, thanks in large part to the reality that everyone’s base-line is essentially drained and we are all nearing our breaking points more regularly. I know I am, at least. Thanks to the lingering winter, limited opportunities to interact extensively with others, and the cooped-up-in-the-house routine, my positivity is perpetually struggling.
Considering that many of us are sharing in this struggle, maybe life would feel a little sunnier if we all extended grace to ourselves and those around us. Rather than taking it personally when someone seemingly sends a storm cloud in my direction, I instead extend grace and understanding and allow a different first assumption: they didn’t mean intentional harm in their facial display or verbal exchange. Maybe by allowing this different conclusion, I will be less affected by those around me. And maybe, in turn, will be able to focus on creating more positive interactions.
So, the next time I’m out and about, keying in to all the micro-interactions with those around me, I am going to try to intentionally extend sunshine, with genuine kindness and thoughtfulness, into the split-second interactions with those I come in contact with. And, importantly, extend grace to myself and those around me. Maybe this shift will change the day’s outlook from an impending storm to a sky of retreating clouds, revealing hopeful sunshine.
Wendi is co-author of The Unexpected Ever Afters blog and enjoys sipping extra hot coffee, sharing a love of reading with her kids, and exploring bike trails.
photo credit: personal photo