Small, thoughtful gestures for colleagues or acquaintances?
December 26, 2019 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to improve my skill at the delicate little attentions that make people feel warmer toward you-- things like notes, little gifts, cards, etc., at exactly the right time. What low-key gestures are part of your emotional labor routine with colleagues or acquaintances? Bonus points for enough details to make it relatively foolproof/ low-risk for awkwardness.

I'm generally not great at the kind of emotional labor you have to spontaneously initiate yourself, and moreover am socially anxious enough that a lot of energy gets bled off in worrying about exactly the right way to word the note/ package the little gift/ present the thing so that it doesn't come off as weird or overstepping or overfamiliar or underfamiliar or whatever.

I would really love a master list of gestures that are generally safe, OK and well-received, for those times when I have 5 minutes to semi-automatically do something kind for this person, but not necessarily 2 hours to wordsmith and agonize and work up the courage to follow through. Nice people of Metafilter, what are some nice things you've done to be nice to those around you?
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (20 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
This may not be personal enough for what you're looking for, but my friends and I are pretty good at remembering when someone is going through a tough time and texting "How are you?" "Do you need anything?" "Coming over with dinner for you; I'll leave it on the porch." Stuff like that. To me, it's more immediate than a card, and way less awkward (again, for me).

For coworkers, it's more like grabbing an extra candy out of the communal jar and tossing it over when I walk by, or remembering that they were excited about seeing a movie and asking them about it the next day. I would, personally, be kind of put off if my co-workers gave me cards and/or gifts. I HATE HATE HATE being the center of attention and that would just send me over the anxiety edge.
posted by cooker girl at 9:45 AM on December 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I offer small, genuine compliments to people about literally anything--their outfit, earrings, hair, whatever. It can also be about something they've done--tell them, genuinely, that you noticed and appreciated it, they did a nice job, etc.
posted by Amy93 at 9:45 AM on December 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

I semi-regularly pick up a nice treat (like Justin's dark chocolate peanut butter cups) and stop by someone's office to drop it off. You don't even need to say anything. Just walk in, plunk it down, smile, and leave.

If you're going out to a store, ask whoever's around if they want anything, or text a friend to ask. If you're going to the kitchen, ask whoever's around if you can get them anything.

I text very, very often when someone is going through some shit. Like every couple of hours, just to say "Doing okay?" This was done for me in several crises of recent years and it made all the difference.

If I hear anything nice about anyone, I make a big point of passing on the compliment. This is huge. Secondhand compliments are the best compliments because you know they're sincere.
posted by HotToddy at 9:53 AM on December 26, 2019 [17 favorites]

I don't think you need notes or gifts. I don't think you need to give compliments, even. I think the one and only skill you need is to listen.

Listening is neither easy nor "natural" at first, but it will become so with practice. It is an actual skill with several components which are hard to master: mirroring body language, reflecting statements, maintaining an open and curious attitude, holding space for the other person without inserting your needs into it, etc. You can look up resources online on how to practice all of these components separately and together. You WILL "fuck up" (e.g. bestow an inappropriate amount of focus on someone who just wants to get on with their day, repeat what the other person says in a robotic way, pick up on the wrong cues of what's the important aspect of the communication, etc.) but eventually you'll learn that letting people get on with their day is a huge aspect of listening, that repeating robotically works better than it has any right to, and people are generally eager to correct you when you pick up on the wrong aspect so it's still a success when you screw that up. The best thing about listening is that even when you fuck it up, you really aren't going to fuck anything up. It's ALL reward and very little risk. It's very difficult to offend or hurt someone just by listening.

Most importantly, however, listening really is the kind of emotional labor people desperately need to do more of. It is life changing, it is day making, it is paradigm shifting. Nobody needs little presents. And while an occasional note may be a nice gesture, I guarantee that people would much rather have a chance to express themselves to you, be heard by you, and be understood by you, than simply listen to (or read) you saying things to them, even if you're saying nice things. Listening to someone is the ultimate form of emotional labor that you can do for them.
posted by MiraK at 9:56 AM on December 26, 2019 [31 favorites]

For coworkers, I think gifts other than sharing food may be tricky to get right. Instead, I would just focus on being friendly/chatting, and sharing things that are work-related via email (e.g. sharing an article if you think the person would be interested in it, sharing job postings if applicable, etc).
posted by pinochiette at 9:56 AM on December 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

My comment above applies strictly to EMOTIONAL emotional labor, mind. If you, like a lot of people these days, are using the term "emotional" labor to also mean other things, here's some ideas for a master list.

You can do:

- administrative labor like being the one to call the plumber when the office sink is broken, or volunteering for tasks on your team that nobody else wants to do

- maintenance and upkeep labor like replacing the toner instead of ignoring the blinking light on the printer, or cleaning the microwave every Friday instead of waiting for someone else to do it, or refilling the water in the coffee maker every morning

- relational labor like getting get-well-soon cards signed by the whole office for coworkers in the hospital

- political labor like mentoring and championing coworkers who are from marginalized groups, starting/joining a union to ensure fair working conditions for everyone in the workplace, etc.

- and emotional labor like listening.
posted by MiraK at 10:11 AM on December 26, 2019 [11 favorites]

Bonus points for enough details to make it relatively foolproof/ low-risk for awkwardness.

If you go to visit people or attend events that they either organize or are at their house, a small thank you card can be appreciated and not be one of those etiquette thigns that confers additional obligation. Easy script

- have nice box of small cards
- have sheet of stamps
- have their address if you were at their house
- write short to the point note "Thanks so much for _________, I really enjoyed ________. Bardolph"
- put in envelope, drop in post office, don't give it another thought.

Other things that can help

- As MiraK said, listening is good. This can be especially true when listening can be tough (which means other people get awkward and don't do it) like when a colleague's family member is sick or has died, literally he perfunctory "I heard, sorry for your loss" and then being there to listen if they want (they may not) can be a gift.
- if you're in one of those "group fridge, no one owns it" work situations, either cleaning it out occasionally or putting something tasty in there with "This is to share, enjoy!" note on it can be nice, same thing with break room. Bring in donuts or a bowl of nice nuts or something your-workplace-appropriate
- generic compliments either "Hey you look nice today!" or a thank you "I really appreciate your help on the XYZ project" can be nice. You don't even have to turn them into a conversation, just follow the person's lead (do they want to talk more, do they not want to? Sometimes your gift is saying a thing and walking away)
- "can I get you something while I'm ....?" questions. Like if you're going for coffee offer to get one, or if you're heading to the supply closet asking if someone needs a thing, being thoughtful about other people and not just staying in your bubble.

Nobody needs little presents.

This is very much culturally determined. For some people, little gifts, snacks or "I was thinking of you" things really are social lubricant. For other people they can be kind of annoying extra stuff to deal with. Figuring out what kinds of people you're dealing with is part of making this all work out.
posted by jessamyn at 10:26 AM on December 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

Remembering things that people have shared with me, and following up on it later. For example, asking my coworker how her husband's eye surgery went the next day, and then checking in again a month after. Or, asking someone if the thing I ordered for them came in, how they like it, if they need anything else, etc.. just the effort of following up is really well-received.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 10:35 AM on December 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

When you go over to someone's house, bring something they would like: wine/beer, chocolates, flowers, whatever. Should be enough to be meaningful, but not too much that it will induce guilt.

Noticing when a conversation has gotten too self-absorbed and all about me. Make sure to engage the other person and have there be a balanced back and forth. Ask questions. Let people have their opinions and set them free from your agenda.

Notice when other people need help and pitch in, even small things.
posted by nanook at 10:48 AM on December 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ask for help! I mean ask for small things like explanations, finding things, reaching things if you're short or bending for things if you are stiff, etc., show appreciation and recognize their expertise. You make people feel good when they can help you. It has to be honest, though.
posted by Botanizer at 11:49 AM on December 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

Not for coworkers but for acquaintances/friends—I keep them on my mind and am not afraid to let them know I think about them and I know them. A lot of staying close to people is the vulnerability of letting them see you care about them, not waiting for them to show they care about you first. So, shooting off a quick text or email if I’ve been out somewhere and seen something that reminds me of them. Or running into them at a party and saying “you always have the most fabulous earrings, look at these!” Or “it’s so great to run into you, I’ve been meaning to send you a book recommendation I think you’ll love because it’s about ghosts and art.” This is vulnerable because a lot of people are hesitant to assume closeness with others—like, “will it be weird to say I was thinking of her? Are we even that close?” But think how it feels when you find out someone had you in mind and knows you well enough to say they saw your favorite herb at the farmer’s market, or whatever.
posted by sallybrown at 11:58 AM on December 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

If I travel for work or go on an interesting vacation, I bring back candy or little souvenirs for my coworkers and friends. It’s then not a little gift out of the blue but there’s a reason (the travel) combined with the attention.
posted by frumiousb at 12:33 PM on December 26, 2019

A caution: in today's hyper-charged atmosphere, it's improper for a man to compliment a woman on her appearance or dress especially if there is an age of power imbalance between them.

On the main issue, I dont think labeling it as "labor"is helpful, but maybe I'm just old-fashioned. But the best way to get along with people is to do your share, plus a little, of whatever needs to be done. I think it also helps to let your personality show so others have a handle to know you by. This can be a little flair in clothing, or a signature contribution to a pot luck, or even just a picture of a team or band you are a fan of.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:13 PM on December 26, 2019

It was always either condescending or improper to compliment someone on their looks, but before WWI or thereabouts the US was so hierarchical that condescension was the best we expected from high-ups. And after 1970 or thereabouts we decided to try honesty instead of propriety for a while.
posted by clew at 1:42 PM on December 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

If gifts and notes don't come naturally to you, they might not be the way for you to go. But I second that when you do something nice for yourself (run out for coffee, run to the corner store, order takeout for lunch) ask someone if they want in. Buy coffee or gum; give them the chance to pay for lunch, but you did the leg work and mental work of making it happen.

For someone you're already close to, you can spontaneously get them something. If I'm going out for a muffin I'll ask my coworkers if they want anything, but I'll just spontaneously bring my best work friend a muffin, because I know what she likes and likely know if she already had a muffin today.

For non-work friends, the phrase "saw this and thought of you" is key. If you see a funny website, a sign that you have a minute to take a picture of, etc. just forward it to them with "Saw this and thought of you" maybe with a smiley. When I see an article about whales it's for friend A; the funniest cat memes are for B, the new sushi restaurant that's opening up is for C.

The trick is that these aren't things that you do when you have five minutes and think "I want to do something nice for my friend." They're things that you do when the opportunity comes up, and you make the 90 seconds it takes to do them. I can't think of much that you'd do deliberately at a random moment that would feel natural. Though I do think you could generate a generic "I was thinking of you today; it's been too long! I hope we get a chance to talk soon. Hope your day is going well!" message and you could randomly send it to someone periodically. I mean, that's one way I stay in touch with people, though I do it pretty randomly.
posted by gideonfrog at 3:32 PM on December 26, 2019

I’d also add— notice stuff. New glasses. New haircut. Safe things. Nothing about the body general.

Then use a neutral tone: “haircut! Suits ya!”

Don’t dwell on it. Don’t get mushy about it. Keep it breezy and keep going. The point is you noticed.
posted by frumiousb at 4:02 PM on December 26, 2019

Sending a link to an article about something they care about or will find interesting/funny

Lending a book I think they might like

Picking up an extra coffee or whatever when they're having a busy day and can't get away from their desk

Remembering and asking about stuff they have going on - a kid's broken arm, marathon training, knitting project, aging parents, new restaurant, weekend away

When someone's having a kind of rough patch, asking them to coffee or dinner

When someone's having a *really* rough patch, sending care packages or practical gift cards, and calling/texting regularly
posted by bunderful at 8:35 PM on December 26, 2019

I work in a helping profession but am fairly pragmatic and generally cultivate a minimalist aesthetic for my home and person. Because I talk to people about sensitive, painful things all day, I have taken cues from colleagues who are more aware of environmental stuff and gotten some soft lighting and a tea tray with a kettle, cups, and an assortment of tea in a box. I let my clients choose a tea and I make it for them. It goes a long way to show them that I care about their comfort. It may not be the right thing in your workplace, either.
posted by unstrungharp at 9:14 PM on December 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you are fairly well-known in your field, it means so much to hype up younger/newer people. I had a lot of people do this for me when I was establishing my career and I am trying to make an active effort to pay the social/networking labor forward to honor the people who did the same for me to help me get started.

Example: An up and comer in my field was recently nominated for a position I held a few years ago, so I sent them an email like "Congratulations! You do such good work in our profession and I am excited to see you running for POSITION. When I was in POSITION I experienced THESE BENEFICIAL THINGS. Let me know if you have any questions about this and I'm happy to share. I am looking forward to voting for you!"
posted by mostly vowels at 10:17 AM on December 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Always, always pass along praise that you hear about the person. "Hey, Susan told me you did a great job with the new TPS covers!" or "Derrik told me you're his go-to person for tech questions. He's really impressed with your expertise!"
posted by BrashTech at 9:12 AM on December 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

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