I’m travelling today; the typical jaunt of 4 airports and 3 flights to get from my hometown to one of my usual destinations: Chicago, for some business meetings. It’s been a few years since I’ve spent any time in Chicago, and 5 full days in the city is simply too short.

But this post is about a life hack; one of those little things you can do to make everything just a little bit better. Many of us walk around with our nose buried in our cel phone or other portable electronic device, or attached to our MP3 player via headphones, or both. These devices are distracting and inhibit our ability to take in the outside world … which can be a good thing, but it makes dealing with people you need to deal with that much more difficult, and it irritates those that you deal with.

So when I’m plugged into my headphones or dickering around with my iPod touch or Sony Reader, and I make it to the front of the line at the airport or bank or whatever, here is what I do:

  1. At 5-10 feet away, I start to put the device away entirely, or take my headphones out of my eyes. Both headphones end up tucked into the front of my shirt.
  2. As I step up to the person I need to speak with, I look them in the eye, smile, and say “Hello.” If they ask me how I’m doing, I answer, and in turn, ask them how they are. After they tell me that how they’re doing, I offer the appropriate “That’s good to hear.” or “Ouch, that’s a pain. These lines do look brutal—hope that the rest of your shift is easier.”
  3. Profit! Or Good Service! Maybe both? Why? It’s easy: by putting away your electronic crap and taking off your headphones, you’ve acknowledged to the person that you need to be able to hear and pay attention to them, that they provide value to you. By greeting them nicely and having a short conversation, you’ve shown that they’re a human, you’re a human, and whatever business may happen next gets off on a better foot.

A side tip: If you’re in a situation where things have gone poorly (You’ve missed a connecting flight, your luggage has been lost, your waitress was distracted and forgot to bring you your delicious cheesesticks, etc.) I’ve found the following style of phrase works out really well: “Actually, things are kind of lousy right now, and I would really like your help figuring out what I should do next.” (or: “And this is what you can do to help fix it.” Tell the person that you’re in a bit of a bind, or a bad mood, but make it clear to them that it isn’t their fault (unless it is) and that they can help you. Someone who wants to be helped is, shockingly, easier to help, and most people do like helping others, even if it’s their job.