Casual Friends and Acquaintances Deserve Kindness, Too

03/02/2012 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2012

On Valentine's Day, I found myself rushing from phone interviews to a TV station event to the afternoon class I teach. At each stop, I was slightly disconnected, thinking of the next task I had to accomplish. I was feeling stressed and harried, until suddenly I was brought out of my self-absorbed state by a small act of kindness.

After about 30 minutes of class, a deliveryman appeared at the doorway with a huge bouquet of roses (white, pink, red, and yellow) with instructions to read the attached note aloud. I was quite taken aback, but read to my large class of 55 students: "Happy Valentine's Day. There are 42 roses here, one rose for each of the lovely ladies in Dr. Terri Orbuch's class. Signed, Mr. E. Nigma."

The entire class laughed and everyone was quite shocked. We passed a rose out to each female, including myself, and I felt so lucky. This small (albeit expensive) and kind gesture made all of us feel noticed and happy. (I found out days later that one of the males in my class sent the roses, but he didn't want to be recognized.)

That was a VERY generous act of attention by one acquaintance to another. But it drives home the point that gestures of kindness make an impact, even if they come from someone we barely know. For some reason, many of us act as if we have a finite supply of kindness, and we "save" it for our partner, family, and closest friends. But the reality is that on a daily basis, we are more likely to spend time interacting with acquaintances -- the bus driver, the doorman, the bank teller, the custodian, the barista, our coworkers -- than with people who are closest to our heart. It's worth putting some effort into strengthening connections with acquaintances. Why? Because they deserve kindness and attention too, and it will enhance your everyday life.

Dr. Karen Fingerman, a family researcher at Purdue University, writes, "Even family scientists rarely study nonintimate ties. Yet, most people report a few core ties and hundreds of peripheral ties. Close ties are essential for individuals to survive, but peripheral ties may be essential for individuals to flourish." Her point is that we depend on these acquaintance relationships for many things. They reduce loneliness, help us problem solve, provide fun, assist in everyday tasks as well as emergencies, and connect us to various religious, political, professional, and social groups.

So what can you do to strengthen your connections with acquaintances? Here are some simple tips:

Take a moment to connect.
Instead of rushing by your acquaintance, perhaps a coworker you've passed dozens of times without talking to, slow down and talk to them. Do you know their first name? Do you know anything about them? Strike up a friendly conversation. Relax, pay attention, and see where your interests and concerns intersect.

Increase your eye contact.
Walking with your eyes down keeps you from seeing who's around you, and prevents you from connecting with them. Instead, make eye contact, greet people, and maybe open a door for them. A big smile from an acquaintance is extremely contagious. It will make both of you feel better.

Open your mind.
When we don't know someone well, we may make assumptions about them based on superficial observations -- their accent or their style of dress, for example. Take some time to get to know them a little better by asking their opinion. Broaden your perspective, and see if you can learn more about who they really are.

Don't scowl and growl.
When we're in a bad mood, we sometimes project our negativity onto strangers and acquaintances, figuring they don't really matter that much anyway. If we did this to a loved one or friend, they would confront us about it! Unfortunately, anger, impatience, frustration, and other negative emotions are contagious too. Find a different way to release your negativity -- through exercise, journaling, art, meditation, and other means.

The takeaway? Your casual friends and acquaintances are the glue that holds your day-to-day life together. These relationships also deserve your attention and consideration. Show small acts of kindness to these acquaintances. Make an effort to connect with these people and get to know them a little bit more as individuals. And, when you do, your daily encounters will become richer and more fulfilling -- both for you and for them.

For more by Dr. Terri Orbuch, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.