There is a front door in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina that doesn’t exist anymore. It was glass with a wood frame painted red and nestled in the crook of an L-shaped house. To the right of the door was a covered cobblestone patio with plastic 70s-style striped lounge chairs, a wooden bar at the back, and a little rock fountain in the far right corner where a handful of goldfish swam their days away. My grandfather built that patio stone by stone, and I don’t know how many hours of my life were spent there flopping on the cushions, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and listening to Sinatra croon on that old radio.
But there’s something very special about that front door. You see, I can never picture it empty. For as long as I can remember, every time I approached that door Grandmother was there. It’s like she knew precisely when we would arrive – long before a cell phone could give her a heads up. Year after year our family’s vehicle would lumber up to the top of the gravel driveway after its thousand-mile journey. We would come around the bend in sight of that door, and there she stood, smiling broadly with arms outstretched.
I guess I just always figured that’s how you’re supposed to welcome people.
What Makes a Warm Welcome
At this point in life I’d wager we all know how to open a door, smile, utter a pleasant greeting, and give a hug. But even people who know how it feels to be on the giving or receiving end of a warm welcome might not know how it works, or how to replicate it for their guests and loved ones.
So here are some ideas for you to try. Any one of these habits will make a person feel special, and when you put them all together, you are harnessing all the hospitality powers of the universe to make people feel great at many levels from your very first moments together.
Mindset: This person is important.
Space: Anywhere a human interaction is about to start.
Habits: Stop what you’re doing, eye contact, smile, timely words, touch.
The Five Elements of a Great Greeting
I came up with five elements of a warm welcome, and I’d be curious to hear if you know more! These are things you can do in those first moments of greeting to make a person feel like a million bucks.
1. Stop what you’re doing.
It’s true in every area of work, play and human interaction: in any given moment, what we are focused on is what is most important to us. We have grooming rituals, jobs, dishes, errands, and projects with deadlines. We have chat rooms and apps and episodes and shopping. We have younger children, older parents, and hungry spouses.
People know these things are important, and so when you stop to turn your full attention toward them, it means something. It means, in that moment, they are the most important thing you have going on. You have the power to decide what holds your attention, so I encourage you to grab that tiny moment to put your entire focus on greeting that person.
Family, friend or stranger. Child, soldier, cashier.
End your phone call. Leave the dishes. Stop reading. Stop typing. Put the pen down. Stop scrolling. Stop worrying. Bring the half-naked baby.
Turn your physical body in their direction.
If you want the people in your life to feel like they are important to you, you have to stop what you’re doing so you can start giving them your full attention.
2. Eye contact.
Eye contact is physical evidence of what you are focusing on. People notice. They notice if your eyes keep wandering to your phone. They notice if you keep looking at the door, or the clock or that green thing in their teeth. (By the way, be a friend and tell them about that asap.)
I often use eye contact as a gauge of sincerity. Many people ask how we’re doing or what’s new. Do they really want to know? If they ask with eye contact and a healthy pause, I feel free to be more open. Otherwise I figure I’ll just give them what they really want – a quick generic response so they can move on. Even as I type this, I realize most people probably don’t mean to discourage openness. They are likely just not focused on the moment. But the truth is, if I’m not feeling welcomed to share, I won’t.
Eye contact is encouraging. You’ll be amazed how even people who normally don’t open up will keep talking when you maintain friendly eye contact as they speak. It lets people know what they are saying is important to you. Please note: I didn’t say that what they are saying is interesting to you. What they are saying is important, because they are important.
When a child comes up to you to talk about the movements of a particular bug in your backyard, you might not be fascinated by food transportation patterns of six-legged life forms. But it is important for that child to be heard, and he needs practice telling stories, so give him your focus! You might even find yourself getting interested.
Likewise, if you have a friend or colleague or spouse who loves some hobby or show or sports team and just has to share, don’t roll your eyes. Make eye contact and let them share their interest with you. If you are genuinely interested in the topic they’re sharing, that’s a bonus! Either way, eye contact is a gift you give to people you care about.
People will know they are important to you because they have your attention. They have your eyes.
A kind smile is a universal sign of good will. It’s powerful body language, and it’s the the clearest indication that we are acknowledging a person in a positive way. It communicates warmth and acceptance without words.
Developmental psychologists say newborn babies need to see smiles, not only because it encourages bonding, but because smiles show them their world is safe and secure. Smiles communicate that same message to older children, teenagers and adults.
A smile can also show people that their presence is not an empty event to you. You are happy just because they are there!
If they are glum, your smile has the power to lift them.
We don’t grin at our boss the same way we do at our childhood friend, but including a smile in any kind of greeting is an easy way to communicate positive vibes and set up a friendly encounter.
4. Timely Words.
The words you use to greet people will be a direct reflection of your relationship to them – or a clear indication of the relationship you want to have, personal or professional, easy-going or formal.
The key here is sincerity, paired with an appropriate level of enthusiasm and matched to your body language.
My grandmother would often greet us with some version of, “Hello my darlings! Let me get my hands on you!” You have to imagine her greeting in a slight Mississippi accent coupled with some North Carolina drawl. Her words created an environment of unconditional love and care with the verbal endearment (“darlings!”) and everything she brought with it. Her tone was warm, loud and energetic, and her eyes twinkled. Before we knew it, we’d be wrapped up in a mama bear hug.
I understand that a Grandmother can get away with things that other people can’t, but the principles of sincere words infused with enthusiasm and matched with body language work just as effectively in even the most professional scenarios. For example, meeting a colleague for the first time.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Ellen! I’ve heard such wonderful things about your work! I look forward to working with you.”
Pair those words with eye contact, a warm smile and a hand shake, and you have created an environment where she knows she has a friend.
Your words can be pro-active toward creating a specific kind of environment, and they can also be re-active, aimed to calm any anxieties, fears or concerns a person might reveal when they meet you. Depending on your situation and the purpose of your greeting, it’s great to include words that help the other person understand or set expectations about how long you have to connect, or what you have prepared for them.
Think about how and where you might use some of these examples:
“Welcome you guys! Come in out of the cold, I have a spot for your coats in that room right over there. Can I help you carry something?”
“Greg, it’s great to see you! You’re looking good man! Seriously, can you sit for a minute? I’ve been wanting to ask you about your…”
“Emily, come on in! I need to pull a pan out of the oven, but please go ahead and sit in the living room and I’ll bring us some drinks. Coffee? Water?”
“Welcome! Oh, you’re not late at all, there are still a few people on the way. We’ll be serving dinner after everyone’s here. In the meantime, have your kids ever played this game?”
“Hello! I’m Kim Josephson, friend of the homeless! And who are you?” (True greeting I received in a lobby from a great baritone. Great conversation starter!)
“Shhh! Hey Christina, I just got the baby to sleep, but do come in!”
“Hi Eddie! I’m dashing to a doctor’s appointment, so I can only talk five minutes, but I’ve been wanting to catch up with you. What did you two decide about…?”
“Well hello! I’m Hannah. That’s a great toy truck you have there. Does it go fast?”
Asking a question gives even shy people something to say, and telling a person where to go or what to do will help get them acclimated to an unfamiliar environment.
Whoever you are greeting, and whatever words you use, the objective is the same. You want to make that specific person feel comfortable and special as you connect.
While eye contact is physical evidence of what you are focusing on, touch and body language are powerful indicators of your level of comfort with a person. Touch shows people how welcome they are in our space.
Let me give you a personal example.
I’m a hugger. Men, women, children and animals all get hugs from me if they’ll let me. It’s what I was raised with and what I’m used to, and I truly want people to feel right away that I am willing to let them close to me. I have found it’s a quick way to turn a stranger into a friend, and I like that.
Yet even with my love of hugs, I know people have different comfort levels with touch, so I typically reserve extra-long squeezes for close family or for friends that I haven’t seen in a really long time. When meeting a new person in a friendly context, I usually offer a quick full body squeeze and return to a comfortable personal distance where we can make eye contact and talk.
I also hold back on hugging when I travel. When I’m in another culture (overseas or across town) I try to touch in a way that communicates friendship to those people. A little research in advance can be a great advantage here, or just pay attention to what the people around you are doing. Happily for me, there are many cultures that hug!
In France, a kiss on the cheek is considered more sanitary than a full-body hug, so friends will greet each other with two kisses, one on each cheek. Parisians do their own thing, so they will give four kisses! In the Netherlands you get three kisses. The Japanese bow. In most circumstances in the U.S. and abroad, a hearty handshake is the safest bet for making physical contact that communicates kind respect.
Note that in many settings, to withhold touch can make people feel that you do not like or trust them. In business, to refuse a handshake can be a sign of great disrespect. Touch is so powerful!
Making a decision about touch will be so much easier if you’re already making eye contact. If you are going in for a hug and the person you’re looking at is reaching out a hand, back off and grab that hand warmly. If you’re reaching out a hand and they’re going in for a hug, go with it. You’re meeting them at their comfort level!
Of course, if you are Grandmother you swoop up the approaching little human in your arms and squeeze like you’ll never let go.
Whatever your level of comfort, think about touch as a powerful part of a truly warm welcome. A gentle squeeze. A pat on the back. A high five. A mock karate chop to the gut. You never know the last time someone had a good hug from someone who loved them. You might be their first.
Practicing a Warm Welcome
We’ve gone into some detail about the Five Elements of a Warm Welcome, and any one of these elements can help make a person feel great when they meet you.
When you stop what you’re doing to focus on them, they feel important. When you make eye contact, they know you are paying attention. When you smile they feel like you are happy to be with them. Your words put them at ease and draw them into more meaningful conversation. Your touch can be reassuring proof that you are comfortable with them and happy to share your space. You can practice all of these things with people you’re already close to and with new acquaintances.
Every time you connect, your warm welcome can set the stage for a great time together. Grandmother’s door is gone, but the memory of her warm welcome lingers. So will yours.
Do you have anything to add to this list? Been to another culture that practices a unique form of greeting? Questions about specific scenarios? Please leave a comment!
The Warm Welcome is the first of five Basics of Hospitality I want everyone to know. Here’s what’s coming up next:
- Basics #2: Provide Nourishment / Share What You Have
- Basics #3: Don’t Apologize for What You Have
- Basics #4: Give Your Full Attention
- Basics #5: Be Thankful for the Time
Let me know what’s helping you and anywhere you’re stuck!
Thanks for being here,