I like to observe how people interact; it helps my writing and teaches me a lot about human nature. One fascinating experience is watching people having quick interactions in public places, such as the speed interaction that develops when you become first in a line. After a long, often lethargic wait, at last you can speak to The One who, in the line’s microcosm, has the power to make or break.
Let's take for example a clerk in a governmental office. It's late in the day and he's tired after having dealt with too many people and their problems. You've been in line for ever and are tired too. You know, of course, that it's quite probable that the form you hold in your hand is incomplete or wrong. Something is bound to be missing – some little detail that the clerk is able to complete for you, but is not obliged to. You dread the moment he'll say: "You need to complete this form with the social security number of your deceased great-uncle, here in box 12-B. Please do that and come back tomorrow. We are closing now."
So when your turn comes you walk up to him and, instead of pushing the form at him right away, you smile and say: "Long day, ah? You must be worn out, helping all these people." Notice how his or her face softens and you are suddenly treated as a human being, not a nuisance.
It's all about empathy. Now that you’ve made it clear that you feel for him, that you understand what a tough job he has, it will be virtually impossible for him to send you away without giving you a little help. He'll hit the keys of his computer, hunting for your great-uncle's social security number until he finds it, and won’t send you away empty-handed. If, on the other hand, you convey that you expect to get service from him, because that's your citizen's right, well…good luck to you. Lack of empathy invites lack of empathy.
You only have a very short time – perhaps two seconds – to create the thread that will carry the weight of your brief relationship, and it must be done before a problem arises. Any attempt to do it after a problem has already arisen is bound to fail, since it will be interpreted as an attempt at mere instrumental flattery. That’s why you need to exercise incessantly. You want to work on your speed connection at every occasion, until it becomes a second nature.
No matter how conscious and used to it I am, it always amazes me how well it works. I have seen clerks who behaved like perfect jerks to those in line before me, turn into helpful individuals when my turn came, assisting me out of problems I never knew I had. People have suspected me of having some secret pull on the poor clerk. I didn’t; I simply exercised empathy.
There are many ways to develop the ability to show empathy and usually they require very little effort; you only need to spend a few seconds putting yourself in another person’s shoes and then thinking whether you can help him feel or fare better.
The whole process by which we establish contact with someone we don’t know lasts only a few seconds. In a way, it is analogous to what in the world of computers is known as "handshake", i.e., a quick connection during which, unseen by the users, two machines (such as a computer or a fax machine) “get acquainted” by exchanging information regarding their make-up, their ability to communicate and the protocols they can use to exchange data. If one of the machines has higher communication capabilities (for instance, uses more modern protocols) and the other is less sophisticated, then they both switch to the less advanced protocols, to make communication possible. Sometimes the result of the "handshake-like" process between people has long-term consequences; once you initiate a low-level conversation with a new acquaintance, getting to a higher level may be uphill work.
In conclusion, it is not sufficient to be ready to understand and be sympathetic toward the others. It is your ability to convey that message in the very first moments of a new acquaintance that will govern your future relationships. This is much more important when you are having a speed interaction, because if you make a bad start you won't have a chance to fix it.
Did you ever have an experience worth sharing, while standing in line for service?