A few weeks ago, I was driving along a suburban street when a bicyclist turned onto the street, hit a patch of loose sand, and, fortunately, fell onto a lawn. I stopped the car, backed up, and got out to make sure that the person was OK. The person turned out to be fine and with a wave they were off to finish their ride. When I got back into the car, I faced a wave of questions from the kids. Did I know that person? No. How did I know that they would fall? I did not. Would I be stopping again to help someone else? Maybe.
Today, more than ever, we face a challenge of how to have positive interactions with others, especially strangers. Many people either disregard or do not understand the importance of these singular interactions to our own well-being as well as the well-being of others. These singular interactions clearly define the people we are and the type of person we aspire to become.
The military really taught me the importance of singular interactions and how they define your character. When I was a in Iraq, I was just coming out of the dining facility (chow hall) with a steaming breakfast tray after an all-night planning and re-planning effort to try and halt some of the then-new improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. I was distraught, dead tired, frustrated, hungry, and ready to rest for a few minutes. I ran into a young Marine that had just driven for hours from southern Iraq with some prisoners for interrogation. The Marine passed off his prisoners and then had to guard his vehicle. Without him saying anything, I asked if he had eaten anything. He said “No,” and with no more words between us, I gave him my breakfast, and headed back to another 18 hours of work. I never saw the Marine again.
In the military, events like this are common, unspoken, and far from unusual. In the military, every interaction that you have with any person is an opportunity to help another person, make them better, and demonstrate yourself as a leader. When I was in Bosnia, on my third deployment in as many years, I helped a young sergeant carry about 10 boxes into our headquarters in the dead of night. No big deal and nothing said between us other than a knowing “see you in a few hours” when we would both face another long day. Years later, that same sergeant, now an incredibly skilled special operations soldier in one of the country’s elite units, contacted me to say thanks for inspiring him to continue his Army career. What inspired him about our interactions? It was 20 minutes of carrying boxes when no one else would help him.
In our daily lives, we need to act, understand, and appreciate how me can make other people’s lives better through the power of our singular interactions with others.
Are you using the power of polite, positive, and civil conversation? Polite conversation is the foundation of a positive interaction with everyone and any person. Today, no matter what you do, everyone is rushed, overburdened, trying to wear their mask correctly, tired, and often at wit’s end to get everything done. These circumstances are why polite manners and positive conversation are vital, because it sets people at ease and makes even stressful conversations easier. Good manners, polite conversation, please and thank you show appreciation for the demanding work and effort of others especially businesspeople, service technicians, and, most importantly, your package delivery person.
Are people better off after reading your social media? Social media is another area where we can be polite in person and absolutely scathing in our digital interactions. Instead, adopt a rule that if people just read one (1) social media interaction from you in a year, what would it say about you? Positive and productive interactions with people we do not know on social media are a way to take politeness, civility, and personal leadership into the digital space. I try to make every post or comment I have on social media a positive interaction. Even if someone never reads anything I post again, then will have received a tip, comment or article that will make them better. A positive digital interaction is a better legacy them emoji fireballs and all caps.
Did you help someone at work? Helping others be successful at their jobs is another idea that few people take the time to do. Holding the door for someone, helping set up a video meeting room, proving some competitor research, pointing out a typo before it gets to the boss are all simple, meaningful, short, and positive interactions that we can take at work. It only takes a minute, a smile, and direct effort to make someone’s day at work just a little bit easier.
Did you say hi to everyone today? Saying hello, a smile, and a “good day” are effortless ways to make friends, be polite, and cement an interaction. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest where not saying hi to everyone would get you a phone call to your father that night. Next time, you walk around the neighborhood, go to a child’s sporting event, or cut the grass, give a quick “Hi!” to everyone.
My military career taught me the power of positive, singular interactions are often the defining characteristic of all our relationships. The vast majority of our daily interactions with people, social media, businesses, government, and other organizations are characterized by short, immediate, and seemingly inconsequential interactions. Simple, polite, and positive conversations with teachers, repair people, grocery clerks, store attendants, and on social media platforms transform from a burden to a constructive encounter when we understand and demonstrate the positive power when can have on others.
Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer, an Iraq combat veteran, and has 15 years university teaching experience as an adjunct professor of marketing. He is a mid-level B2B marketing executive and a widely published author on leadership, logistics, marketing, business, data, decision making, military and technology topics.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.