How the Phenomenon of Social Observability Works: Spreading Verbal High Fives

“Hurry up!” a voice yelled as I ran across a busy intersection. Panicked, I looked up to see a girlfriend’s wide smile, cheering me on as she drove by. I straightened my shoulders, lengthened my stride and smiled inside.

The quick encouragement made me feel strong. Half a mile later in my run, I was coming down a long hill. I spotted a mom with a jogging stroller at the bottom of the hill about to embark on the steep climb.  BadA$$, I thought to myself.

Moments later, as we were passing each other, I heard myself say to this complete stranger, “you’re Bad@$$ – pushing the jogger up that hill – good for you!”  She looked at me a bit puzzled with an unsure smile. Maybe my spontaneous unplanned delivery was a little awkward.  Or maybe we are just not use to strangers being nice.

I wasn’t sure what motivated me to blurt that out.  Maybe I was inspired by the girlfriend who supportively yelled at me, or maybe by the beautiful day.  But in doing it, I realized I don’t do it enough.

I notice positive things about other people all the time: “they look nice today,”  “that was really considerate of that person to hold the door for that older gentleman,”  “those kids are well behaved.”  Sometimes I find a moment to share it, but more often than not, I keep it to myself.

As I continued my run, I wondered why I keep it to myself.

I can’t claim fear of rejection on this one. Who in their right mind would say: You take that back!  I’m not interested in your niceties!  

I can’t claim fear of coming off nosy. These things happen in public and it’s hard not to notice.

I can’t claim fear of over-stepping my bounds. I don’t want to bother anyone, but no one is really bothered by a compliment.

I could claim not paying attention. Too often my nose is in my phone or I am lost in my own thoughts, but I still notice things.

None of these are valid.  I was stumped at why I keep these positive thoughts to myself.

Following my run, I jumped on a flight for work. Despite the silly amount of Skymiles I have logged during my career, with each child I have added to our family, I have become increasingly skittish about flying.

I have a whole routine to counter my edginess.  The routine consists of: music, writing and reading. Somewhere in the middle of my routine that day, I started connecting the dots as to what may have prompted me to cheer on the stranger pushing a jogging stroller up the hill.

My current book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, discusses the social phenomenon of public observability and imitation or Social Proof. A campaign at Arizona State exhibited how this power works.

The school attempted to decrease student drinking by educating students on the harmful effects of alcohol. When the school wasn’t seeing results, they went back to the drawing board. Their new campaign focused on publicizing how many students actually did not enjoy binge drinking (69% it turned out) but those students did it because they thought everyone else enjoyed it.

Sharing these stats – that the overwhelming majority of students did not enjoy binge drinking – proved to be more effective than the old campaign which relied on educational materials to explain the harmful effects of binge drinking.

Following the new campaign, which only informed people that the majority of their peers did not enjoy binge drinking, the campus saw a 30% decrease in binge drinking. What others were doing was more important and influential than the knowledge they had about how harmful their actions were.

With a new perspective of the phenomenon of observability and social proof, I re-examined my last 24 hours. The night before my aforementioned run, a neighbor yelled: Go Libby!  as I ran through our neighborhood. Then today, the girlfriend cheered me on at the stoplight.

I realized I encouraged the stranger because I had observed it! The encounters I experienced over the last 24 hours told me it was socially ok. And I liked it. It made me smile and run a little harder each time it happened.

The potential power of this social phenomenon in our society excited me. Maybe the real reason I’m not telling the woman in line in front of me how nice I think she looks is because no one else is. What a terrible reason for me to not tell her!

There are certain activities where we are pre-disposed to cheer others on: athletics pursuits, big tests or important presentations at work. We find it natural, easy and almost customary to provide praise. But there are so many other daily activities that are also worthy.

Getting through Kroger in under 45 minutes. Verbal high five.

The kind person patiently taking my lunch order. Verbal high five.

The co-worker who stops what they are doing to help me. Verbal high five.

I should applaud these efforts. These mundane activities make up my life.

My new commitment is to be the person who says it anyway. The person who actually says and gives verbal high fives whenever I think it, instead of keeping it to myself. Maybe it will catch on – the way my neighbor and girlfriend’s positive words prompted me to pay it forward by encouraging someone else.

If the mom who was out pushing her baby up Arrowhead happens to read this. I think you are awesome. It’s hard to be a mom. It’s hard to find time to take care of yourself. Even without those things, it is hard to lace up those shoes.  It takes commitment and strength to be a runner. Yet, you seem to be doing all. So here’s a verbal high five. I hope you’ll pass it on and they’ll pass it on and I’ll keep cheering people on too (hopefully a little less awkwardly, but I’ll get the hang of it soon.)


17 thoughts on “How the Phenomenon of Social Observability Works: Spreading Verbal High Fives

  1. theswirlingdervish says:

    Your post just made my day! I’ve often felt the same way but, instead of giving the Verbal High Five, I think, “Great job!” and send a telepathic thumbs-up. Now I will turn over a new leaf and say, “You rock!”


  2. Mehrin Doolin` says:

    Great post Libbs! I actually did this a few weeks ago. I was running on this relatively busy street in my city where lots of people run/walk after work. I passed a friend of mine and gave him a high five as we ran by each other (we had not seen each other in a while, but neither of us wanted to stop and catch up). There were three other sets of people walking behind him (towards me) that saw it and they then offered me a high five as I ran by them! I just smiled the whole way home!!!

    It’s amazing how the smallest gesture of encouragement or friendliness (a high five, a smile, holding the door, helping someone pick up something they’ve dropped, or just saying “Good afternoon” to a stranger) can change someone’s day.

    High five to you for sharing your story and encouraging more people to spread good cheer to brighten someone’s day – and more than likely, brighten their own day just the same!!


  3. Lorin says:

    Love this, Lib. Thanks for encouraging me to voice the good stuff in my head. Starting with…I really enjoy reading your writing! You’re brave to put your thoughts out there. Love you!


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