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Sidewalk Psychology


Sidewalk Psychology

Matt Hahn

One of my favorite walks in Columbia, SC is alongside the Columbia Riverwalk next to  the old pump houses that once fed water to this historic city. It’s a peaceful walk, mile after mile, with the sounds of water flowing, birds chirping, and an occasional cool breeze. Though mostly scenic there are plenty of dog walkers and stroller pushers. Its vibe makes me want to say “hello” to everyone I pass on the sidewalk or sitting on the park bench. Not everyone, however, feels the same way. 

I was once on an afternoon stroll when I passed by a rather boisterous man on the side walk and gave him a smile. He stopped his conversation, turned to me and said “Hello, sir. How are you doing today?” That interaction was in sharp contrast with the remainder of my walk. Despite my effort to acknowledge the people I passed, not one met my eyes for a simple head nod or “hello”. I was disappointed. 

On my way back to my car, I decided to count how many people would acknowledge me when I passed them on the sidewalk. I tried to make eye contact with anyone who passed me, along with anyone sitting on a park bench. I gave an "acknowledgement point" to anyone who met my gaze, and tracked how many people made eye contact, said hello (even with no eye contact), or waved. Shoot, I would even count it if someone yelled at me for staring at them too much (that didn't happen). 

All told, I passed 24 people or groups. Want to guess how many of them got acknowledgement points? . . . 3, or 12.5 percent. To put it another way, a higher percentage of American males have clinical strokes than acknowledged me on the sidewalk. Bummer. I put the findings of my “research project” in the back of my mind until I happened to come across a study that might explain why I was so interested in people acknowledging me during my walk. It comes from a simple human need to feel included. 

In the study "To Be Looked at as Though Air: Civil Attention Matters," published last year in Psychological Science, the lead author Eric D. Wesselmann, a psychology professor at Purdue University, explains: "Because social connections are fundamental to survival, researchers argue that humans evolved systems to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion. For example, simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion. ... Even though one person looks in the general direction of another, no eye contact is made, and the latter feels invisible." Similar to my feelings when I went unnoticed. 

To measure how people feel when they are acknowledged by others, the researchers had a college- aged woman walk around a well-trafficked college campus of about 40,000 students. The woman randomly chose 282 people and did one of three gestures: looked through them (without making eye contact), acknowledged them with eye contact, or acknowledged them with eye contact and a smile. After the passing, a colleague trailing behind the woman stopped the person she acknowledged (or didn't) and asked two questions: "Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?" (on a scale of 1-5) and "Within the last minute, have you experienced acknowledgment from a stranger?" (yes/no). This is all without the person knowing that the woman and her colleague are working together. 

The people who were given an "air gaze" (or no eye contact) felt the most disconnected. On the other hand, the people who received eye contact and a smile felt the least disconnected of anyone studied. I wonder if you add a "hello" to the smile if it would lower the feeling of disconnection even more. Either way, it seems that even the smallest gestures to connect toward strangers can bring about a sense of community. And that's good for human health. 

As Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary established in a 1995 study humans have a "need to belong." As they explain: "Both psychological and physical health problems are more common among people who lack social attachments. Behavioral pathologies, ranging from eating disorders to suicide, are more common among people who are unattached." Much of this comes from the quality of long-term relationships, but I'm curious whether seeing people often in a city setting and not feeling connected could contribute to this as well. If the same study was conducted in Times Square, for example, would the results be different? The research isn't there yet, but Wesselmann offers a hypothesis. 

"It is reasonable to assume that context may influence the effects of both acknowledgment and being given the “air-gaze” (looked at as if one doesn’t exist)," said Wesselmann. "If one is in a community where the social norm is to politely greet everyone, then these effects may be intensified. In large cities where these interactions are less common, the effects may be tempered." 

Even within big cities there's surely some variation. How would the results of a similar study in Times Square differ from a residential street in Columbia? 

Big cities have bustling corridors where saying "hello" would be out of place. But there are plenty of places, even within the most densely packed city, which lend themselves to neighborly acknowledgement: an apartment building, an office, a quieter residential street. 

The feeling of connectedness is one of the benefits of serving on a Welcome or Guest Services Team. Let's make sure to utilize this opportunity as it is two-fold. When you are connected with a group of people serving with the same intent to simply “love” on others, you create a bond with one another. Its a special bond that only people serving within this capacity feel. Its a feeling of purpose and drive, of encouragement and love. 

Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Lois Richard. She is the original Wal-Mart greeter. She came up with the idea of a store greeter in 1982 in Crowley, Louisiana. Her initial intent was to reduce shop lifting in the small merchandise store. Her supervisor appointed her, ( a relatively small lady) to stand “guard”, since this was her “hair brained idea.” Little did she know, the concept would catch the eye of Wal-mart founder Mr. Sam Walton. 

After much debate from the corporations board of directors, the greeter idea would be implemented company wide. Additionally Wal-Mart would grow to be as well known for its greeters as its falling prices. In an interview with a local news paper, Mrs. Lois says she wanted to see TRUE, smiling faces and happy personalities at the doors of Wal-Mart stores. She believes that customer service is something that can never be lost, and its important that businesses realize that a personal touch goes a long way. 

As a member of the guest services team, you are the very first person to stand sentry and smile genuinely as was a beautiful Cajun lady from South Louisiana who sincerely believes people come first. Mrs. Lois worked for Wal-Mart for 19 years before retiring. 

Wouldn’t it be something if we all could stand back and say we were the smiling face of our churches for 19+ years? And that our passion for people never decreased, but rather increased! 

I'm going to side track briefly and take you into the past. Remember Mr. Clippy, that talking paper clip who used to pop up in Microsoft Office and offer to guide you through the confusing byways of the various Microsoft programs? 

He retired a few years ago, and he probably thought he was done with Microsoft. But he’s getting a bit bored and needing to invest some more money into his 401(k) so it appears he may be back. Microsoft recently hired a Dream Works executive who spent 25 years with Wal-Mart  stores, (see a trend here?) to run a possible retail effort. The executive wants to bring a new twist on what would be considered “customer service” and, in a sense, replicate the Wal-Mart experience. With the help of Dream Works and some whiz-bang animation, perhaps Mr. Clippy will get a make over and come back to work. 

The relevance with the whole myriad of information is that on the personal and emotional side of things there is value in the personal touch of acknowledgement. In the business side of things it only makes sense to make the customer feel valued and appreciated. Fortune 500 companies have addressed this very thing with Mr. Clippy coming out of retirement. 

We all need a a warm hello and sense of worth. Studies upon studies prove that the experience you have while in the company of those who appreciate you makes you feel exponentially better than you would otherwise. It is the intent of the Guest Services team to do just that. We want everyone we come in contact with to feel the love of Christ that is flowing through each of us. 

Its fairly obvious that Mrs. Lois encountered much frustration and opposition in regards to her “hair brained idea.” However, she created a monumental movement that would encompass generations as she led the way in what we all know as the standard of customer service. As a church, we will encounter the same thing. But, wouldn't it be amazing to stand back in the years to come and be known as a church that loves God, preaches his word, and loves people and Christ loved us? 

If we take a step back and reevaluate how we operate its safe to say that we have some fine tuning to do. Its fair to say that we could all learn from Mrs. Lois and her passion for others and apply that to the way we function as a Guest Services team. If the value of people was weighed upon your actions towards others would the scale be off balance? Or rather, if the value of people was weighed upon your option of yourself rather than having a heart for man, would the scale be off balance? 

The Bible tells us over and over about the importance of honoring others above yourself. Romans 12:10 - Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourself. Philippians 2:3 - Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. John 13:34-35 - “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” and the list goes on. 

If we are to be TRUE as Mrs. Lois said in her above interview, wouldn’t it seem that the only way to gauge TRUE is by what the bible says? Wouldn’t it seem that even if we had to make schedule adjustments and perhaps leave our comfort zone of personal security that it would behove us to be TRUE servants to the word of God? 

As the face of Awaken Church, Guest Services prides itself on being a people who are flawed yet committed. A people who are tired yet ready to endure. A people who are in pursuit of Christ and desire most to share his love. So, as you venture towards the front doors of this beautiful building, know that a Guest Services volunteer awaits you. Know that they genuinely care for and love you. Smile, give a head nod, or even a hug, its good for you! 

Much Love,