When I was pregnant with my second son, several people warned me that the new baby may be overshadowed by his big brother, who was a cute toddler with a magnetic personality. As though it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, for the first 18 months of my younger son’s life, he was out-shined by his charismatic older brother. As a baby, he had a bad case of the “stranger danger” and would shy away from strangers and relatives alike. When friends and family members would try to hold him or get him to smile, he would just cry. Feeling rebuffed, people would often turn their attention to our older son, who more than made up for his younger brother’s apprehension with his bubbly personality and funny antics.
My husband and I weren’t particularly worried about our younger son’s shyness, as we knew that it was perfectly normal for babies and young children to be cautious around people they don’t know. We just hoped that people would not automatically equate his initial shyness with aloofness, which is something that introverted people often have to contend with.
As parents, we tend to be especially sensitive to certain personality traits (such as introversion) in our children that we possess ourselves. I was a reserved kid for most of my childhood and was often overlooked because I was too bashful to speak up. Being a natural introvert, I have had to work very hard over the years to overcome my natural tendencies of being too quiet in social situations. In high school, I auditioned to be one of the speakers at my graduation ceremony as a way to face my fear of public speaking because I heard that some people fear public speaking more than death. Although I feel perfectly comfortable meeting new people, networking with strangers at conferences and mixers can be both awkward and exhausting for me. I’m comforted by the fact that most people feel some hesitation when it comes to networking because we all have, to some degree, the fear of rejection and the unknown.
Around the age of 18 months, as though a switch was flipped (and for no apparent reason), my younger son transformed from a cautious baby into a total social butterfly. My husband and I watched in awe as he smiled and waved and said “hi” to every stranger who walked by. Every single person stopped what they were doing for a moment to smile and say “hi” back to this tiny guy with the toothy grin. The more he interacted with people, the more attention he got and the more outgoing he became. On a recent plane ride, my husband and I were amused and a little embarrassed when he repeatedly called out “HI LADY!!!” to the flight attendant each time she walked by.
As a result of his newfound friendly demeanor, I was inadvertently thrown into conversations with random strangers who wanted to know more about my outgoing toddler. My conversations with these complete strangers felt easy and effortless and we all left with smiles on our faces. One day, as I watched my son smiling and waving to yet another stranger, it dawned on me that the key to connecting with strangers is the quality of the smile. Polite smiles simply do not elicit the same response from people as warm, genuine smiles.
So you are probably thinking to yourself, of course smiling works for babies. Babies, like puppies and beautiful people, are almost always nearly irresistible to people. I can’t argue with the fact that people who are attractive, funny, or socially adept will garner more attention, even without much effort. However, I wondered if normal people with average looks and disposition could boost their social prowess simply by changing the way they make their initial contact with strangers. My theory was that genuine smiles are disarming and help to draw people together.
I had plans to attend a professional conference where I would be meeting and networking with lots of colleagues, so I decided to test this theory. At the conference, every time I made eye contact with someone, I made sure to give them my warmest and most welcoming smile and said “hi.” While I expected most people to reciprocate the gesture, I didn’t anticipate the surprising number of people who actually came over and started talking to me after we exchanged smiles. By taking this one simple step, I had many interesting conversations with people I didn’t know, and I was even offered an impromptu job interview from one of them! While my little experiment is not remotely close to being objective or scientific, it demonstrates the power of a smile. Who knew that I would learn my best networking trick from someone who hasn’t even turned two?
Of course, breaking the ice with a nice smile is just the first step when it comes to networking. Once you get the person’s attention, you will still have to engage in conversation with some degree of charisma and humor. But social skills, like any other skills, can be improved with practice. Contrary to what most people think, irresistible people are not the loudest or the most talkative people in the room. They are the ones who can remember people’s names, listen intently, and ask genuine questions. I read a research article many years ago that said the more you allow people to talk about themselves during conversations, the more they will like you. If that’s true, then introverts may have an edge in many social situations after all!
Happy Chic Mom, a blog for moms
This post is dedicated to my sweet and spunky son who inspires me everyday with his kind spirit, irresistable smile, and can-do attitude. Happy second birthday my Lovey!
The post, the best networking tip I learned from my 18-month-old, first appeared on Happy Chic Mom.
Photo credit: Samuel Zeller