Small interactions matter more than we know

I dialed in for my Zoom session where I was supposed to lead a group of 50 whom I did not know. The host of the session, who was also a stranger to me, asked me how I was doing and I felt she really meant it. She told me a brief funny story about her attempt to make coffee that morning which made both of us laugh. I went from feeling droopy and a bit anxious to feeling eager and attentive to what this zoom session might bring. It was a small interaction that had a powerful effect. I could feel it in the shift in my attitude and bodily worry about the Zoom session. The interaction had created a major uplift and was a noticeable booster shot, leaving me clearly better off than when the interaction had started.


“The Power of 40 seconds” is the chapter title in one of my new favorite books, Compassionomics. In it, the two physician authors, Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, review a series of five studies that provide compelling evidence of the power of short compassionate interactions. In these controlled experimental studies patients with serious health conditions (e.g., cancer) are exposed to explicitly compassionate communication with their doctor that takes less than 40 seconds. In all of these studies, a less-than-40 second compassionate interaction substantially reduced patient anxiety, and in at least one study, left a measurable impact on patients’ emotional distress levels six months later! If just 40 seconds of positive caring interactions with vulnerable patients can leave this kind of trace on other people, imagine the impact each of us can have if we are more mindful of how our caring actions matter.


It is not just the quality of these short interactions that matters but also the quantity of these connections that we have during the course of a day. Sociologists call these shallower, more casual interactions weak ties. We know from research that these ties are important in giving people access to information and other resources despite their “superficial” quality, especially when compared with ties with friends, colleagues or family members. Research by Sandstrom and Dunn shows that the more of these brief interactions we have with others who are not necessarily our friends or close ties, the greater our social and psychological well-being and sense of belonging. Research by Methot and Rosado-Solomon similarly show the benefit of small talk endemic to such conversations.


The impact of these short interactions is magnified by the fact that we are affected by the interactions we witness. The research by Chris Porath and Chris Pearson shows the harmful impacts of witnessing acts of rudeness on our behavior, where we suffer the downstream effects of other’s unkindness. On the other hand, witnessing even brief acts of kindness can call forth a sense of moral elevation which is associated with optimism and prosocial motivation. One can think of witnessing acts of kindness as instances where one person models altruistic or prosocial behavior to another. A great deal of research suggests that seeing others act that way calls forth prosocial behavior from others, making kindness contagious.


When I pause and reflect about the power of these small interactions I am amazed that we don’t do more to encourage ourselves, teach our kids and develop leaders to be more aware of the power they have to make a positive difference through small interactions. Part of the problem, I think, is that we assume that these small interactions are inconsequential or just scraps when the the real “meat” of relationships is all about making friends, finding partners, or building networks. Yet maybe the most consequential relational activity we can engage in is something we barely think about—being present and responsive in very short interactions with the lesser known or even strangers in our lives.

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