On another trip to New York and, as usual, it’s providing plenty of fresh food for thought. Yesterday it came in the form of two very different flight attendants who made me revisit the question of what makes a really delightful person, and what infinitesimal factors go into our snap judgments of people.
The first one was nice enough. I’d unintentionally left my phone on too long, and, seeing it, she asked me very politely to turn it off. “I was just going to,” I assured her and she replied, “It was supposed to be off five minutes ago.” There was a snicker somewhere nearby and from that moment, I didn’t like her.
Her reply was such a small thing and not unjustified. As a flight attendant she’s doing at least two flights a day, working for at least 12 hours (assuming they were going back to LA), dealing with 312 unruly passengers who try to sneak in a few last minutes on their unapproved electronic devices and unfasten their seat belts before the plane has come to a complete stop. And when she saw me, I was reading a text message. I didn’t know it was there – it popped up when I tried to turn the phone off – but she didn’t know that. Nor was her tone rude.
No, what she said was perfectly reasonable, yet it was enough to push me from indifference to mild dislike. That one tiny thing made her seem like one of those people who think it’s their duty to set people straight whenever they aren’t doing things just right. I have to admit to being guilty of that same thing on far more than one occasion – but it’s not an endearing impression to give.
The other flight attendant, Diana, I fell in love with immediately. There are some people who are just delightful, who have a brightness and liveliness about them, who only have to look at you to make you feel special, and only have to say a few words to make you feel you’re having fun, and she is one of them.
I think I have often viewed these people almost as having magical powers – that they’re almost cheating, that they’re something we mere normal humans can’t be, and that really isn’t true. Just as the really rude and unpleasant got there by a set of actions, so did the delightful.
So, what are these actions? How do delightful people create “brightness and liveliness”?
I think this impression is partially created by a general quickness of action and reaction. I don’t mean rushing around looking busy, but being quick to notice a person. Quick to smile. Quick to change the smile to a little frown of sympathy or concern.
It may help to picture the opposite of what I mean. If you’ve seen The American President, think of the scene when the President goes into the florist shop. The girl behind the counter is absorbed in herself and the personal conversation she’s having. When he tries to get her attention, she waves him off. Finally she turns to him, a bored look on her face, maybe even snapping a piece of gum, and says, “Can I help you?” It isn’t until he starts talking that she even looks at him attentively enough to realize who he is. This is slow and lazy and selfish and not delightful.
Now contrast that with the concierge at the most luxurious hotel in the world. You approach, and before you even reach the desk, he looks up, smiles, recognizes you, and says “Oh, Mr/Ms _____! What can I do for you? Of course, it would be my pleasure.” Or if you have come to mention some trifling problem with the room – only one chocolate on the pillows instead of two, perhaps – assumes an immediate look of concern and springs into action: “Oh, I am so sorry! Let me get that taken care of for you right away!” This is quick, and makes the other person feel that their needs and concerns matter.
Something that goes along with this is that bright, charming people are usually very expressive. Instead of just saying “Hi,” they say “Hi!” or even, “You look lovely this morning, darling!”
Depressed people aren’t particularly expressive, so the first thing is to create a cheery frame of mind. Look for the good things and prepare to be pleased. Be easily amused. One of the most enjoyable coworkers I ever had laughed at almost everything I said; you can imagine how clever and happy I felt after a few minutes with her and how much I looked forward to our lunches together. But also, a good sense of humor helps with the cheerfulness.
Second, delightful people look the other person in the eye. It’s amazing how much most people don’t do this, even when they’re trying to. To get in the habit, perhaps you could make a game of noticing the eye color of every person you speak to, from the waitress to the neighbor you passed on the way to the laundry room.
The point of looking someone in the eye is to convey that you are paying attention to them, so, of course, you’d better also be paying attention when you do this.
Third, delightful people smile. When I was growing up Mom used to tell me to smile and I would say, “I feel stupid smiling for no reason!” True, plastering a smile on an otherwise blank face and walking around that way doesn’t work. But it doesn’t have to be a grin. Just a little bit of lift around the corners of the mouth goes a long way, and comes naturally with a cheerful frame of mind.
Studies show that even an immediate, real smile is perceived as being more sincere when it takes a little time to build, so a good one starts in the eyes and spreads across the face. Also, delightful people let it ebb and flow with the conversation, linger and fade and light up again.
Delightful people seem completely concentrated on the other person as an individual even in a very brief interaction. This seems like advanced stuff, but my current theory is that this is merely an effect of all the above actions. Because there was a vast difference between Diana, who did all of the above and took that extra half second to share a laugh with someone over a brief comment, and the other flight attendant, who did none of it and seemed to view the passengers as identifiable only by their seat number, and serving whom was a job that should be carried out efficiently, while secretly hoping they wouldn’t ask for too many snacks or beverages.