Chris Peterson, my wonderful former U of Michigan colleague was known for his phrase “other people matter.” Psychologists studying well-being and resilience also remind us that other people matter. Other people matter in so many ways. From the time we awaken, until the time we rest, other people send us signals (intended or not) about who we are and our worthiness as human beings. This was a core assertion of sociologists like C.H. Cooley who coined the term “Looking Glass Self” to capture the observation that we often look to others to confer significance and meaning to who we are.
So who were you when you first woke up this morning and first looked at your email? Was the message one that suggested you were loveable? competent? formidable? lazy? crazy? or some combination of other qualities?
The fact is that we are engaged in a constant process of interpersonal sensemaking to discern who we are now, who we have been in the past and are likely to be in the future. One study we did nearly 20 years ago of hospital cleaners navigating their days of doing housekeeping duties revealed to us the power of small moments of affirmation and disaffirmation in composing a person’s worth. We called this process social valuing and devaluing and it is an important reminder that each of us has the power to grant or deny that another person matters by how we treat them and the work that they do. For example, stripping and waxing the floors of a hospital is an arduous and time-consuming task but it is work that is critical to a hospital’s cleanliness and a patient’s experience. A significant proportion of our hospital cleaners told stories of doctors walking across freshly waxed, still wet floors as an experience of being “walked on as a person”. At the same time cleaners mentioned patients and patients’ families who proactively cleaned up their messes so cleaners could easily do their work sent messages of valuing to the cleaners that literally “made their day”.
So, this day, when we arise, I hope we remember that each of us plays a role in conveying value and worth to another. In fact Cheryl Rice has even created impactful “you matter marathons” through equipping people with cards that say “You matter”. At work, at school, in our homes and on the streets, with people we know and people we do not, we are sending messages of mattering (or not). I hope we can make mattering matter.