You start out visiting your local coffee shop once a week. You order your go-to, a vanilla latte, and the barista writes your order on the cup in thick, black sharpie. You watch as he creates your drink with care, adding the vanilla, grinding the espresso, foaming the milk to perfection. He carefully caps your drink and calls out your order.
This routine continues on for a while until, after a few weeks, there is a semblance of recognition. You introduce yourself to the barista and you begin to greet each other by name. Now, instead of having to ask for your order, they already know it when you walk up to the register. A triumphant smile widens across their face. You smile too because you realize you’ve become a “regular.”
We interact with countless people each day. But no matter how often these interactions happen, we can still finish the day feeling completely disconnected. Sometimes the subtle things — like a co-worker stopping to ask you about your day, or a barista greeting you by name — can make a world of difference. So how do we go about being known and making others feel known?
My advice is to start small:
- Learn names! I am in no way the poster child for this, but it’s something I am always striving to get better at. A trick to learning names is to repeat a person’s name as soon as they introduce themselves. For example: ”Nice to meet you, [insert name here].” Learning others’ names demonstrates that you care and that you have a vested interest in forming a relationship.
- Ask questions and lead with curiosity: Instead of asking someone what they do for a living (the question we all get a zillion times), ask what they do in their free time, what inspires them, what they’re passionate about. This will open the door to allow the person to share more about who they really are.
- Listen: To be known is to be heard. We all know those people who ask a question and then gaze off into the distance, their level of disinterest is clearly evident. Take time to listen and be attentive. You can’t get to know someone if you don’t pay attention.
- Think of someone who makes you feel recognized and valued. Channel what it is about that person that makes you feel this way and strive to emulate them.
I’ve had the experience of being both the worker and the customer at the coffee shop. For years I went to my campus cafe with the same order: a caramel iced coffee with milk. I always felt a small tinge of satisfaction when the barista remembered my drink. After college, I took a side job at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. working as a cashier. I only worked on Saturdays so the recognition of customers often took longer. But with time it grew and soon enough I could divine customers’ orders without having to think too much. As I learned how they liked their coffee, I felt their personalities slowly unraveling.
In addition to working at the coffee shop, I served coffee on Tuesdays at a shelter for homeless men. We didn’t have quite the same array of options as the shop — no fancy lattes or cold brew — but the flow was exactly the same. The men would line up, approach the counter, and place their order. Tea or coffee. Sugar or cream. “Two and two” was the most popular order: a cup of coffee with two scoops of sugar and two scoops of cream.
I switched between different roles: the coffee server, the pastry server, the juice filler. Despite my place at the counter, with each week one thing was apparent: the men became easier and easier to recognize. I learned their names, their smiles, their orders, and small bits and pieces of their personalities. While we didn’t always have time to launch into in-depth conversations, we established a general rapport fairly quickly. Hearing them greet me with my name gave me as much joy as being able to greet them with theirs.
Sharing a name, becoming a regular, making small talk — these are really small, simple actions, but we shouldn’t underestimate their power to ground us and help us start to put down roots. So instead of rushing off next time you order a coffee or pass by a neighbor, introduce yourself. Your small act might just make their day.