Go First

When you were a child you waved at strangers: the man walking down the street, the cashier at the supermarket, the couple sitting in the café. Especially when you were a toddler, you would do this without thinking. You were simply testing out the dynamics of social interactions, seeing if you can get a reaction from another person. 

I’m reminded of this as I watch my one-year-old son waving at strangers walking past as he plays in the park. He waves at every person walking past and most people wave back and smile warmly at him. But not everybody waves back. Some people don’t notice him. Some people blatantly ignore him. But still he waves and waves again. It’s as if children instinctively know the power of going first. Being the first to initiate connection. I wonder with a heavy heart how many people are needed to ignore my son before he learns not to wave first, just as I (just as most of us) have learnt. 

How much better would the world be if we all had the courage to go first? How much more connected and accepted would we feel? It would certainly strengthen the fraying social fabric. I’m not saying we have to be that annoying person who strikes up conversations with strangers on the train. I’m talking about simply acknowledging the people you share a space with, whether that is through eye contact, a smile or a nod.  

Apart from your family, everyone you know was a stranger before you knew them. The only reason you are now friends are because one of you had the courage to go first. That first sentence to introduce yourself is the hardest one to overcome. We are scared of being ignored or rejected, but remember, most people reciprocate. Most people have the same fear as you do. By going first to acknowledge them or to introduce yourself you are easing their tension and they will most likely be relieved that you went first. People are not as scary as we make them out to be. If you want to make friends or build your network, go first. 

On the other side of the fear of going first is usually a smile.

Going first is particularly important if you are in a business that is customer-facing.  Horst Schulze is the founding president and COO of the Ritz-Carlton hotel group and a thought leader in the concepts of service and hospitality. He says that the customer experience starts the instant you make contact with the customer. And that instant is when the customer comes within three metres of you. It is critical that you go first and extend a warm greeting for the customer to feel acknowledged and to have a positive association with the brand. 

Whether you are in customer service, want to make new relationships or just grow in your human decency, have the courage to go first. What’s the worst that could happen? In contrast, consider how empty your life would be if you or your friends did not have the courage to go first to initiate the relationships you enjoy now. 

About the author

Divan Gradwell is co-host and producer of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.