How Smiling and Nodding Affects Our Interactions

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
June 5, 2017

Ever since I was little, I’ve avoided uncomfortable moments in movies. I would always fast forward through the parts where the characters I liked put themselves in uncomfortable or embarrassing positions. I still do that today. In general, most people avoid uncomfortable situations in real life, but we all have our strategies for dealing with them.

Just this morning, I had an uncomfortable encounter with a shoeshine guy at the airport. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he proceeded to talk to me about his religious beliefs in excruciating detail. At this juncture, I had several options. I could have asked him to stop. However, that would have immediately changed the interaction between the two of us from a friendly service encounter to one of frosty silence. I could have faked interest and engaged with him on this topic—something I’d have a hard time doing in my personal life. I could have chosen to let this annoy me. However, getting my shoes shined is one of my personal pleasures, and the context was all wrong for going down this path.

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So what did I do? I did a lot of noncommittal smiling and nodding—interspersed with a few “Oh, reallys?” and “Mmm-hmms.” Just enough to let the conversation run its course without being rude. By interacting with the person mainly on a nonverbal level, I was able to show some interest and establish rapport. We both walked away from the encounter with our feelings on a relatively happy note. So what does this have to do with UX consulting? Quite a lot actually. As consultants, we often find ourselves delving deeper into areas we would not normally explore with people we don’t know well.

How to Build Trust Quickly, Even with Strangers

In the world of experience design, we talk a lot about empathy. Interacting with others helps us to correctly predict what design will help people to interact with a product or service. But, for all of our professional abilities, how often do we fail to carry our ability to interact with people over to our interactions with everyone else in our personal lives? Truth be told, whatever actions we take with friends, family, or even strangers can have a ripple effect throughout both our professional and personal worlds. When we are more mindful and pay attention to the details of our interactions, we are better able to understand an experience need and craft the right solution to meet it.

This is not just a feeling. There is plenty of research out there to back up the notion that our small gestures are important—not least in the area of building trust. Sometimes building trust takes just a smile and a nod. To understand this better, let’s take a look at what happens when you don’t make this effort. When writing about the psychological sting of rejection, psychologist Todd Kashdan [1] cited a research study by Kip Williams, on random and small interactions between people walking down the street. In this study, a researcher would essentially walk down the street and interact with complete strangers by doing one of three things:

  1. Quickly glancing in their direction
  2. Nodding and smiling at them
  3. Avoiding all eye contact and pretending they did not exist

Kashdan noted that, when people received no “acknowledgment from the stranger passing them,” they felt disconnected from not only that person, but started feeling disconnected from their larger context and society. What is really interesting about this is the fact that the person rejecting them was a complete stranger to them. Naturally, we feel a sense of rejection when a friend, a family member, or even a work colleague doesn’t interact with us. However, feeling this in response to a stranger is very interesting. In the world of User Experience, we so often design solutions for strangers. Even communities in which we may be involved or to which have a connection are filled with strangers with whom we need to interact to better understand the needs and desires of the larger community.

What this study illustrates is: experiencing feelings of rejection comes very easily to us and in response to very small triggers. Such triggers, while small, seem to have quite a large impact on us as human beings. In contrast, a small gesture such as a smile, a nod, or some eye contact could just as easily go a long way toward establishing rapport.

How to Build Strong Relationships

Making eye contact builds trust with folks. The ability to do this is a central part of being a great consultant. Whenever I need something or want to build a relationship with a colleague or potential client, I always opt for a face-to-face session. There is no substitute for good physical interactions. Email, phone, and other virtual means of communication are great, but they require some level of preexisting relationship to really be successful. This is why it is important to go beyond the easy methods that are available to us and think critically about how to build and strengthen our relationships.

Why is something like a smile and a nod so effective? When considering mindfulness and organizational behavior, we start to see a pattern around social phenomena that we could describe as contagious. Essentially, when we smile at people, it is hard for them not to smile back. When we acknowledge people, it is hard for them not to acknowledge us back. Looking people in the eye and observing whether they are able to return that eye contact is a good way to judge their character. How many times have you been subconsciously unable to trust a person because he or she could not look you in the eye? In short, our behavior—despite whether it provides negative or positive reinforcement—has a significant and contagious impact on others.

This does not pertain just to one-on-one interactions. Everything we do with other people—and the way they interact with us—has a ripple effect, even interactions between two strangers. When walking down the street or sitting on a train, if you are so focused on yourself or your mobile device that you fail to recognize the basic social graces or lack a sense of mindfulness, you can have a huge impact on others around you and how they view you and the world.

As a UX consultant or researcher, you should always be mindful of how people perceive you. You can be the best UX professional ever, but if the stakeholder with whom you are meeting in ten minutes is the same person for whom you failed to hold the elevator door open because you were too busy to notice the world outside your phone, getting that person to trust you is going to require a lot more interaction.

When in Doubt, Smile and Nod

The advice I’ve imparted in this column is no more than what many of our parents and grandparents have instilled in us from a young age. But behaving this way seems almost counterintuitive in today’s world, with the plethora of technology that enables us to minimize our human interactions. However, research has proven, time and time again, that we are very social creatures, living within a social structure. We cannot easily do away with human interactions, and we should recognize and exploit social structure to our advantage whenever possible. Whether you’re relating to a shoeshine person or someone who is about to sign a huge contract with you, you never know when all it would take to make good things happen is just a nod and a smile. 


[1] Kashdan, Todd B. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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