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5 rules of thumb for interacting with people

tea for two

I’m sharing these general policies not because I want to tell people what to do, but because I’ve gained so much in a short time from trying to follow them. There’s nothing difficult about actually doing any of these things. The trouble is remembering.

1. Before you meet up with someone, decide you’ll be a good experience for that person today

When I’m about to head out and meet someone, usually the act of shutting off the lights and collecting my keys reminds me to do something: to leave with the intention of being especially good company when I arrive. Sometimes I forget by then, but most of the time that intention seems to affect me the whole way there.

More than anything, being a good experience for someone means giving thought to what that person might have been hoping to get out of this visit with you. They probably want to see a relatively pleasant (and present) version of their friend, not a preoccupied or distracted version. They probably want to have some of their thoughts validated or at least listened to.

When I don’t do this, presumably I end up mostly concerned with my end of the experience, and it probably goes okay. But when I remember to consider what “good company” might be for this person I’m with right now, visits with people can leave us both on a better trajectory for the day, and maybe for our friendship too.

Sometimes you just won’t be in this space. You may need to vent or ruminate aloud about something and that’s fine — that’s what friends are for. But make sure you notice when it’s the other person who needs that.

2. Don’t make comments or jokes about people’s names or bodies

If you can be certain about anything in life, it’s that anyone named April or June has heard a thousand idiotic calendar jokes. Don’t be another idiot.

Jim Schwartzenberger already knows his name is really long and hard to spell, and he doesn’t want hear it in your fake Austrian accent.

John knows he weighs more than most people, but he may not want to be called “Big Guy.” Even though he’s too polite to say so, he doesn’t want to hear anyone’s lighthearted ribbing about all-you-can-eat buffets and broken chairs.

Dan has already noticed he’s really tall. He doesn’t want to try out for the Lakers. He also probably doesn’t especially like being called Daniel Boone or Dan the Man. People usually love hearing their own name, as Dale Carnegie famously told us 80 years ago now, but stick to the version they use themselves.

There is just so little to gain by making light of people’s names or bodies, and so many ways it can annoy, bore or hurt people. Somehow it’s still really common. Few of us like having these two extremely personal things evaluated or made into a topic of conversation. Just don’t go there, as a rule. 

3. No ad hominem

Ad hominem is what it’s called when you try to win an argument by criticizing the other person, rather than the point they’re making. It can be subtle (“Young people often don’t realize this, but…”) or overt (“His book must be bullshit — he still wears pleated pants.”)

It happens pretty easily in face-to-face debates, but it happens all the freaking time on the internet, where you feel like you’re interacting with text and not a living creature. We often don’t even realize we’re doing it. I have this phrase written on an index card pinned to the bulletin board above my desk, because I know I need a standing reminder.

Something really amazing happens in a discussion when both sides privately commit to avoiding ad hominem: the topic actually gets discussed, and learning takes place. People feel free to change their minds because they don’t have to defend themselves just to defend their view.

The fix is easy: when you’re in a disagreement, ask yourself if you’re addressing the person or the point. If you have to, pretend it’s your grandmother making the opposing argument.

4. Get off your fucking phone when you’re with people

I’m leery of “The world is going to hell” kinds of complaints, but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s noticed a creeping tolerance of once-appalling phone behaviors. It’s increasingly common to walk by a restaurant patio and see a table of four or more, at which every person is sitting silently, head bent, looking at their electronic device. We all have a right to do what we like, of course, but politeness isn’t a matter of rights, it’s a voluntary offering of respect.

I’m most disturbed by this creeping tolerance because I catch myself absently playing with my phone too, without having consciously decided to. The gratification-seeking part of my mind is taking advantage of this new zeitgeist where virtually any moment outside of a job interview is fair game for tending to a screen in your hand. Not only is it impolite, but whenever we do it we’re helping to normalize it just a little bit more.

Whether or not you do it too sometimes, you definitely know the feeling of your listener’s attention dropping away from what you’re saying, as they peek at their phone and start swiping away. It shouldn’t be a particularly valiant thing to decide not to do this to people.

A friend gave me a quick way to determine whether slipping out your phone might be rude. If it’s a situation in which it would be rude to leave for the bathroom without excusing yourself, then it’s probably rude to use your phone without excusing yourself too.

5. Be kind to people who are at work

When it’s your day off, it’s easy to forget that many of the people you’re interacting with are at work. The quality of the interactions they have with you and people like you is a big part of whether they love or hate their job.

We’ve all had nightmare workdays, when the whole world seems to be conspiring to make your day more difficult. And we also have those days when everything’s flowing like a dream. Both of these often hinge on how reasonable and patient our customers, co-workers and contractors are being with us that day.

To understand the significance of this, just think of a particularly bad day you had at work, and how much it would have meant to you if, in the middle of your mini-nightmare, a customer or passer-by made an unexpected gesture of compassion to you. It can be as simple as giving you space to do your work (just ask roadside construction workers about this one.) Or at the very least, being careful not to blame you for their frustrations with the product or the company (just ask tech support people or restaurant servers.)

Work is hard, and we can make it much less hard for others with just a little bit of consideration. There have been so many times when someone surprised me with kindness during a shift in which I expected resistance from the whole world. The effect can turn a day around.

In many ways this is a scaled-down version of rule #1. When you’re in line, decide you’ll be a better-than-expected experience for this clerk or cashier. It doesn’t cost you a thing, and it’s worth so much.


Photo by Guwashi999


Bill July 6, 2014 at 11:43 pm

And smile when you say hello.

David Cain July 7, 2014 at 7:40 am


iskaminien July 7, 2014 at 8:32 am

What? Never? Why?

Tomek July 7, 2014 at 11:32 am

Hello :),

It was a joke.

Jodi July 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm

I agree. This is a great list.

Pedro July 7, 2014 at 1:20 am

Point 1, we definitely give the best from ourselves when we Listen, really listen being fully present when talking with somebody. I see myself sometimes thinking about other issues and worries while trying to listen at the same time. Other example of the power of now, that I easily forget

Will July 7, 2014 at 2:11 am

Thanks David, your timing is always perfect.

I’m going to dinner with my sister in 20 mins — I’ll leave my phone in the car.

jo July 7, 2014 at 2:16 am

I love this!

I keep a diary and i always “book” people in, friends, new people etc. This is so i set time aside for them, that I can be 100% present for. However people tend to not see it that way, they feel that since I have to “book” people in, I am not easy/ or am unavailable…which bothers me. I have a lot of friends who I am thankful for, and I always enjoy new people, but it hurts at times when me planning to see them in my diary is seen a negative, rather than me making sure i can give them 100% of myself in that time. I also keep my phone on silent in all meetings, i dont need to be distracted by ringing or buzzing.

David Cain July 7, 2014 at 7:45 am

I think part of the issue with phones is that we’re used to being able to get a hold of people at any time, and so often we feel we must be available all the time, so we don’t feel right ignoring the phone for a bit. So trying to be available all the time is probably contributing to the overall problem. Good for you for committing your time to the people you’re with and not constantly dividing it, as is becoming normal.

Tara July 7, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Reminds me of a favourite line from a Walter Matthau film, The First Monday in October, where he plays a supreme court justice. The phone rings in his office and he ignores it. When his visitor asks him why he didn’t answer, he replies, «The phone has no constitutional right to be answered.» I feel free to ignore the phone whenever I don’t want to talk or it would be inappropriate to do so.

Juanita Grande July 7, 2014 at 2:21 am

Great list and thanks for the post, David. :)

There is indeed a disturbingly increasing number of i-zombies out there and as you well-noted, in part, thanks to increasing tolerance of it by many of us.

I’ve shared how deeply joy-sucking this drug-addict-like behavior is many times with *a certain person* in my life and I hope that sooner than later, those speeches will no longer be required.

So many more lovely things to talk about, I’d say!

; J

David Cain July 7, 2014 at 7:48 am

When I worked as a surveyor, I would get a new college student as an assistant every year, and every year each student was more and more inclined to whip out his phone when we had a spare few seconds of downtime. I was alarmed that it got significantly worse (and more socially acceptable) every year.

StephInIndy July 7, 2014 at 3:02 am

exceptionally thought-provoking reminders. appreciated the well-placed, strong language. totally warranted ;-)

Beth July 7, 2014 at 3:38 am

Thanks for Point 1, David! That thought just made my day! I’d never thought of an interaction that way before – it seems so obvious, yet I’d never conceptualised it into thinking about the other person leaving with the feeling of having had a good experience with me! I can’t wait to put it to use to see the difference it makes to me and the other person. I’ve learnt that ‘kindness’ is so important in any interactions, and I so enjoy exercising it.

I live in a country where customer service is so abysmal that it’s just about non-existent. People working in shops don’t greet or smile … it’s easy to complain about this, but how I’ve learnt to make my point is to pointedly look at the service person scowling at me, smile as sweetly as I can, and say, “How are you?” Generally, they then feel embarrassed that you’ve had to make the first friendly move, and hopefully, they have realised they should be doing it better.

David Cain July 7, 2014 at 7:54 am

One great thing about number 1 is that it instantly makes you feel grateful that you get to see this person at all. It helps you keep your attention devoted to the visit with the person.

Randall Pitts July 7, 2014 at 9:22 am

I agree with you completely. I’ve been living in Germany for 17 years now and the customer service here has always been generally terrible. Everyone complains about it, but nobody has a solution. I’ve always made a conscious effort to behave in a very positive, friendly fashion to create positive and friendly responses from shop employees. This requires that I first think about how I can behave to make the situation positive. As a result I generally enjoy these interactions and the “grumpy” individuals do too. It’s a win/win situation.

Funny that I wrote about this just last week. :-)

Nevu July 7, 2014 at 4:26 am

Good list David, i particularly like no 4. I think this song/rap sums it up pretty well when it comes to phones and devices, its well worth a look. Very interesting how it ties into the present moment awareness and how the ‘nows’ flash past whilst life happens beyond the screen glare.


It’s in English but has French subtitles.

Free To Pursue July 7, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Great video. I loved every second of it. It’s a great reminder of the fact that the world passes us by and that we are likely irreversibly changing the course of our lives by paying more attention to cyberspace than to the physical space we and others inhabit in the day to day. Thank you for sharing it Nevu.

Kali July 7, 2014 at 6:05 am

Your points remind me a lot of the book called “the Four Agreements”, that discusses 4 “rules” which should be a basis for our life behaviours and choices.
The first agreement is about “an impeccable word”, which means being careful about what we talk about and how it may hurt the people in front of us (re: your points 2 and 3 – well, 1 and 5 too). the second agreement (or third, anyway), is “do not take things personally”, and again, your point 3 touches that – if you are in an argument with someone who starts criticizing you insead of your ideas, don’t take it personally.

Anyway it’s a nice little summary and if you (or readers) don’t know about the Four Agreement it might be worth taking a look at as the philosophy seems to match yours.

David Cain July 7, 2014 at 7:57 am

I have read The Four Agreements several times, and I’m always impressed by how relevant the agreements are every time you remember them. It doesn’t matter what the situation is. And number 4 applies to all of them :)

John July 7, 2014 at 10:17 pm

The Four Agreements is a powerful read! Couldn’t agree more Kali. It’s one I try to read at least once a year :)

Dave July 7, 2014 at 7:38 am

#2 is a wonderful point in every circumstance. In our body-centered dieting culture, which puts so much emphasis on physical appearance, it’s possible to forget that other people’s bodies are none of our business.

John July 7, 2014 at 8:25 am

#4 is my biggest pet peeve! Glad someone came out and said it. It is pretty wild to think how far we’ve come (or unfar?) in terms of what is considered the norm for checking our phones. A trick I like to use (mostly because I’m frugal) is to never use data to connect to the internet. This way, a location has to have WiFi in order for me to check anything other than calls/texts. Granted, more locations are making WiFi the norm but it’s surprising how much this cuts down on my phone checking.

Michael Eisbrener July 7, 2014 at 8:44 am

Wonderful rant!!! It is fun to watch people argue against each one of these too. Most people do … 1. Most seem to decide the outcome before it arrives with less than positive outlook OR look for the negative, what missing or what could be better always and all ways. 2. ‘I didn’t mean anything.. I was being funny… don’t take it so personal… 3. Human seem to identify with ‘their’ group and become its beliefs. Attach those beliefs and you attack them. I suggest normal is a unique personal event look for its mates. Every kind of patriotism violates this rule at some level. 4. Most people over the age of 20 lived when there was no cell phone, at least not in everyone’s hand. I am surprised how many people never check nor know how to listen to their voice mail. I walk away when people answer their phone in mid sentence when talking with me. 5. I have not worked for anyone but me for a long long time. You do get what you give. Give kindness and it comes back at 100x or more. It is the same and more for that other stuff.

David Cain July 8, 2014 at 9:29 am

Thanks Michael.

Susan July 7, 2014 at 10:30 am

Great thoughts, as always. The phone is a particular pet peeve of mine. I think sometimes people want us to think they’re so much in demand that they can’t relax for even a moment (these are the same people who pull out their phones the moment the intermission lights go up in the theatre) and sometimes it’s just thoughtlessness. This one baffled me though: I have a friend who moved from one coast to the other a few years ago and constantly talks about how lonely she is. Most of her friends are on-line buddies now and there’s nothing wrong with that BUT when she, another friend and I got together for a girls weekend, she was constantly texting or tweeting even when we were in restaurants. I appreciate that she needs her on-line friends most of the time but we were RIGHT THERE. That’s an extreme example, I know, but it really stuck with me, and I vowed on the spot never to check my phone when I’m with other people unless I’m truly expecting an important message. I don’t think people realize how incredibly rude and offensive it is.

David Cain July 8, 2014 at 9:31 am

I was talking with a friend last night about the movie Her, which seems to be about this mentality extrapolated to a ridiculous degree but which is not too far-off from where we are now. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but it’s a world in which you can get an intelligent operating system for your computer, and even fall in love with it, and essentially lose track of all real human contact because technology supplies the feeling of the contact without the real thing actually happening.

Susan July 7, 2014 at 10:38 am

Great post. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog–you’ve beautifully and eloquently captured many of my thoughts on social interactions. Raised my awareness of times I may not be as nice as I could be to people who are working (I’m retired). As an introvert, I try to psych myself up for meetings with friends and acquaintances, but number one helped me see this is a whole new light–it’s about them, not about me! Keep on writing and sharing!

Free To Pursue July 7, 2014 at 1:11 pm

I appreciate all five points you offer above and I am especially thankful for #2 and I’d like to expand on it:

We live in a multi-cultural society. If you are more than meeting someone in passing, I think it is a great sign of attention and respect to try your best to learn how to say a person’s name properly. Don’t immediately give a person with a foreign name a nickname or anglicize the pronunciation of their name. It’s their name! Honour it by doing your best to say it correctly. I guarantee you he or she will be grateful for the effort.

Kirsten July 8, 2014 at 9:48 am

My name was butchered as I was growing up in a prairie city where the name was unknown. It has made me extremely sensitive to getting other people’s names right, even if I have to practice it in front of them a couple of times. Thank you for bringing up this point. It is more and more relevant today.

tallgirl1204 July 9, 2014 at 5:00 pm

I’m also grateful for point 2– for different reasons. As my “name” implies, I’m tall. Strangers feel free to approach and ask how tall I am, and children often comment. I try to respond graciously, but I just plain don’t like it. Thank you for pointing out that just because someone doesn’t tell you they don’t like your “joke” doesn’t mean they do.

kerri July 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm

David you. are. awesome. And so is your post!!!! See, I just had a moment there (#3). You are awesome regardless of your post lol.

kate July 7, 2014 at 3:56 pm

These were some good reminders. and that last thing in the yellow box.’learn to live in the present’….brought to mind something i saw this morning on the back of a car…’you must be present to win’….great, huh?

David Cain July 8, 2014 at 9:35 am

Haha that is an excellent requirement for just about anything.

amy July 7, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Wonderful advice – this one is going up on the refrigerator :)

Randy Hendrix July 7, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Don’t know when I’ve seen so much excellent advice all in one spot. Great job David.
I find it downright insulting when someone decides to text at the same time I’m talking to them. I generally just stop talking mid sentence and wait until they notice. This usually makes them feel bad which is ok since they insulted me first.
Counting the days until YOU ARE HERE!

David Cain July 10, 2014 at 8:53 am

The worst is when they don’t notice you’ve stopped talking :)

Randy Hendrix July 11, 2014 at 10:17 am

Ha! True!

Tom Southern July 8, 2014 at 7:04 am

Taking time to acknowledge that we live in this world with other people, that’s the key. And acknowledging that we’re all struggling at this game of being human is important too. I’ve been with people who interrupt me to talk to someone on the other end of a phone. Or simply started talking (while I was talking) to someone on their phone via headphones.


I like your guide, David, to think of the people working while we’re off on our day off.

Bottom line: Think of others. They’ll think more of you.

Kirsten July 8, 2014 at 9:39 am

Okay, I cringed as I read number 4 because I see it creeping insidiously into my behaviour. And, I should, and do, know better. Le sigh.
You are so right, it takes so little to be pleasant to people and kindness costs absolutely nothing. You don’t have to go around grinning like the Cheshire Cat, but even a small smile will lift your mood as much as the recipient’s (true physiological fact). It creates a positive spiral :-)

Karen J July 9, 2014 at 2:56 pm

Love those positive spirals, @Kirsten! yee-hah!

Kirsten July 9, 2014 at 3:11 pm

@Karen, I can see you do! Nice Fibonacci sequence you have going there :-)

Jen July 8, 2014 at 7:25 pm

I especially like number 2. I frequently get body comments and it makes me so uncomfortable. I am a short, petite female, and in some cases I think people mean it as a compliment, but in others it is to make themselves feel better, e.g. comments such as “you should eat another piece of cake! we need to fatten you up!” No, you don’t.

Also, don’t comment on pregnant women’s bodies. The only semi-acceptable thing to say is “you look great” but really just don’t comment. The body scrutiny of pregnant women is unreal.

Brizian July 10, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Great post! Wanted to mention something – As someone with a loved one who suffers from an eating disorder, and has met countless others because of that, not making comments about people’s appearance includes supposedly positive comments.

To that person who’s secretly starving themselves and/or vomiting after every meal to shed a few pounds, your “have you lost weight? You look great!” is encouragement of their unhealthy actions and reinforcement that there’s something wrong with them that needs fixing.

You can’t always tell by looking. And when it’s your loved one who you’re trying to help and everyone around them keeps reinforcing that they should keep it up, you start to see those “positive” comments in a whole new light.

Vishal July 11, 2014 at 3:29 am

Great list.
Here are my thoughts on each point:

1- Positive expectations beforehand work extraordinarily good. But there is a catch – You cannot doubt that expectation. Just hold on to it. many times, this expectation will cause other people to react well. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

2- Rule of the thumb: Never joke at something the other person CANNOT change. Light teasing on shoes, hat etc are fine.

3- Try to avoid conflict in the first place. But when you DO get into one, focus on the problem, not on the person.

4- Take any important calls, but keep it short. Rest of the time, stay away from you mobile.

5- People at work are not your friends to begin with. You did not CHOSE their company. You were made to sit next to them. Each person there has different personalities. Learn to tackle each person uniquely. Requires some focus & effort, but its well worth it.

khuram July 11, 2014 at 5:57 am

Awesome Articles. http://www.braindirector.com

Randy Hendrix July 11, 2014 at 10:20 am

It is amazing to me David that there are those completely miss every point you were trying to make…oh well.

Randy Hendrix July 11, 2014 at 10:21 am

sorry, “who” completely

Susan Shaw July 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I *really* want to keep #1 in the foreground of my awareness. (For “visits” with friends, co-workers, etc. – but why not remember this advice when I encounter my partner around the house, too?) Reading this post led me to some of your other entries and I am grateful – very encouraged and inspired….thanks

Tom July 16, 2014 at 4:00 am

This is brilliant, David!! Perhaps one of my favourite articles of yours. I need to make it into a desktop wallpaper or print it out and stick it on my wall. It simple but such fantastic advice.

Hilary July 23, 2014 at 9:49 am

Add truck drivers to “people who are at work.” Give them space on the freeway, help them merge, don’t cut them off, realize they cannot respond to a car’s comparative agility the way people seem to expect them to, and know they will slow going uphill and gain speed on downhill (nope, they’re not actually racing you or trying to get in your way). Bonus points for backing off and waiting if it looks like they’re having a hard time making a particular turn in the city, or letting them get in front of you when initially trying to enter the roadway.

Asbel July 23, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Hey, do you take your own pictures for your blog posts?
They’re really nice :)

David Cain July 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Some of them. Most are licensed from Creative Commons on Flickr. At the bottom of each post there is a photo credit. If it’s mine it says “Photo by David Cain.”

If you like my photos you should check out HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD. It contains over 30 of my photos, and it’s free:


ikechi August 3, 2014 at 12:10 am

I love the points you have raised about interacting with people. This is a great article. A good read.

Ida August 3, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Great list.
People very often point out the fact that I have freckles and pale skin – I never appreciate it and always feel like pointing out (though I almost never do) that it is actually sort of racist to be that prepccupied with the colour of another person’s skin.

Sebastian Aiden Daniels August 27, 2014 at 9:05 am

These are fantastic tips. I love the idea of going to meet someone and having the conscious intention of making sure it is a good interaction. I’m going to try that one from now on.

A great starting point is to ask that person how annoying it is that their name is April and how many annoying comments get made towards them.

Phone behavior is the worse. I will stop talking if someone keeps looking at their phone when we are having a conversation.

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