August 8, 2012
Why social chemistry can give you the ultimate buzz
As a freelancer I have spent a lot of time over the years working in different spaces, mostly coffee shops. And something that you learn as a nomadic worker is that a place with a good vibe is conducive to productivity, much like a traditional office with a congenial atmosphere makes you happier and a hotel room with a comfortable bed and clean carpet is more welcoming than, well, a dump.
Last week I moved temporarily into a new place, a coffee shop in Wallingford that is not normally convenient for me but was near my kids' camp. The actual company doesn't matter much, but this shop was a Starbucks.
If you asked me before last week to describe the average coffee shop, I probably would have described the kind I've been in a million times, with good people serving good coffee, nothing special but welcoming enough.
What I saw while spending a week working at this particular shop was something entirely different. At first I thought it was just a single shift crew that was particularly gregarious. The three baristas were not only friendly, which one hopes employees in the service industry will be, but -- and this doesn't really capture it fully -- they were authentically warm. They connected with each person in the shop.
I don't know how better to describe it, but there was chemistry between the workers and customers. The chemistry didn't end with that single crew; it reappeared every day, carried forward by every employee I saw who smiled directly at everyone's face, asked earnest questions about the customer's day, and joked or talked about their own.
The response to the authentic friendliness of this coffee staff was almost like watching a controlled social experiment: People in line smiled and said hello to each other; conversations started; I even heard two strangers begin to talk about business and then witnessed one offer the other, who mentioned she was job searching, a contact at her own company who was hiring.
The whole placed hummed with goodwill. This was social chemistry.
The shop and its staff were on my mind when I heard a story about a speech given during a training presentation my husband attended.
The woman speaking, who is known for her ability to command an audience and engage listeners, began by telling the crowd about how, during high school, she needed to find a way out of taking biology because she knew she would have to dissect a frog. Instead, she enrolled in chemistry class, worried about the difficulty level but convinced nonetheless it was what she had to do.
In chemistry this woman found something she had not been expecting: a teacher who would change her whole outlook on and approach to life.
This chemistry teacher was very personable and made a point of engaging deeply with his students, something high school teachers don't always do. On the first day, he told his students to gather in a row and play a sort of game. The directions were: The first person introduces themselves; the second person introduces the one before plus themselves; the third person introduces everyone who came before, and so on and so forth.
The teacher then told the class, "You may wonder what this has to do with chemistry. Well, it has everything to do with chemistry -- social chemistry."
He went on to tell the class that a couple of years prior, one of his students committed suicide. That student had been a quiet kid, a loner. When the student died, the teacher learned that most of his chemistry classmates didn't know his name.
"That will never happen again," the teacher had said from that year forward.
What do these two stories have to do with each other? Starbucks employees keeping customers smiling in a Seattle neighborhood, and a high school teacher determined that people know one another's names?
They illustrate the value of social chemistry. We all have our own unique backgrounds, the values we bring to the table as employees: our experience, our education, our skills. With work and time, those values can be augmented and changed; we can get a new degree, we can retrain, etc.
But how often do we move through our days stressed, over-committed, ignoring or looking right through those around us?
Just like the high school teacher and some Wallingford baristas have figured out, there is power in making human connections every chance you get. What could happen if we all made saying hello to those around us (a real hello, not a fake one) as much a part of our day as drinking a cup of coffee?
What opportunities might arise? Who could you help? What doors will you open?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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