MIssing the First Paragraph

I get that we are busy. There are always more things to do than we have time for. Instant messaging and texting have become mediums of the present, symptoms of our obsession with doing “more” and being “more” available. Indeed, we are people in a hurry.

But how we present ourselves to others still makes a difference. It is important that we say hello and say it a way that communicates interest and openness. The same can be said of our good-byes. “How do we want to be together?” is a question I often ask of those around me, and one that frequently arises in my mind. Relationships are important because all the successes achieved in our careers or in our personal lives have come to fruition because other people have gifted us with their assistance.

So, in our daily interactions, we must remain aware that we don’t know the state of mind or life experience of those we meet, whether stranger, friend or fellow employee. How others experience us can make a difference–to them and to us. For instance, a person, who is hurting inside, may pass us by in the hallway and interpret our silence and lack of eye contact  as a sign that we upset with him/her. Or, he/she may conclude that we are aloof or arrogant. It is a fact that we humans often make guesses about the weather, the stock market and each other. And our guesses are often dead wrong. A kind word, a smile or a friendly nod can ward off the bad guesses that may damage future interactions.

This thought also occurs to me in the context of the correspondence we exchange with others in the course of a business day. I’ve been intrigued by the number of people I’ve met–and sometimes supervise–who leave out the first paragraph and simply start with the facts of the transaction when they write letters. Many times these individuals have asked me to read over their correspondence and suggest improvements. Whether in person or via the Internet, I always ask the same question: “Where’s the first paragraph?” Employees new to my style often struggle with the question, especially since I ask them to discover the answer on their own. Staff familiar with me usually express embarrassment and go back to the drawing board.

The first paragraph is essential since it is there that we check in with the addressee. We acknowledge the passage of time, greet the person, ask how he/she is, wish him/her well and, if relevant, offer thanks. The paragraph reflects the quality of the relationship we have or wish to establish with the individual.

How we want to be together does make a difference–even on a screen or on paper.

-Art Dykstra