Micro-relationships

When we hear the word ‘relationships’, we probably think of big hairy audacious relationships first. Family, spouses, close friends. Then there are the acquaintances. Somewhere along this spectrum are Facebook friends. (Interestingly in Poland, there are two separate words for friendship. A “normal friend” and then a “friend friend”, and you are very careful about what to use when. I always love to find words in other languages that cannot really be translated to English).

Anyway, there is another class of relationships that I would like to call microrelationships. They are unusual in the sense that they are more than acquaintances, so they have a little more ‘intensity’, but within a very specific context or a thin slice of time (even though the overall time for which they may last is longer). You make these relationships with your bank teller whom you enjoy talking to, or with the barista at a coffee shop you frequent who knows what you like, or with the man who comes to your department for clean up at 1am in the night and you practice a couple of lines of your measly Spanish with.

I differentiate these from relationships like your driver or your dhobi, because you can still choose these people. Microrelationships are more serendipitous.  Maybe a different barista serves you one day, maybe the guy who cleans your department has a different shift that night.

For example, at the coffee house at Stanford (CoHo), I know a guy called Sergu, with whom I always have a fun conversation whenever I am getting coffee. I like my coffee extra hot, and one day he decided to describe that as ‘cachondo’ (which apparently means horny in Spanish slang). So whenever I get my coffee now, we get a laugh out of him calling me Mr. Cachondo. Our ‘relationship’ doesn’t go beyond that, but the short conversation means something to me. When I go to get coffee I hope that it is his shift.

But what if something goes wrong? What if one fine day he refuses to acknowledge me in the same way? This happened recently at another coffee shop here. A barista who used to be really nice to me (our little schtick was addressing each other with the first three letters of each other’s name) has practically stopped acknowledging me (and I can even guess why that might be: I was abusing the free refills policy – you know, like PIGS are prone to do). But how do you resolve a conflict in a microrelationship? The serendipitous nature of these makes it decidedly awkward.

In a class called Social Brands here, I learnt that brands are a lot like people. They have a personality, they make mistakes and so on. A simple framework to look at this relationship  trajectory is the following:

Socializing

You start by saying hello, you listen with intention, you make mistakes and then recover, you express gratefulness and then you start again. One of the things that our teaching team drilled upon was the power of the apology, which brands don’t leverage enough. I wonder how one apologizes and recovers in microrelationships? Or maybe just take Tim’s advice about uncomfortable conversations?

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