Pull of the Smoke Break

I was asked a great question:

What is it about a smoke break that brings people together?

A tough question for any non-smoker to answer. Also, something that a lot of smokers probably don’t think about or pay attention to. Why you’re doing something is easily taken for granted while you’re actually doing it. But I could hear by the way that the question was asked to me, that it was a mystery for at least one person. Trying to answer one person’s question is good enough for me.

Let’s align our experiences here first. Then I’ll get into why sharing a smoke break with someone can be a unique bonding experience. Consider these things that must be true if you’re sharing a smoke break.

  • You’re standing near someone
  • You’re both smokers (at least at the present moment)

It may also be true that;

  • You may be forced to instigate some kind of social interaction. If you need to ask for a cigarette or a lighter from the other person

So assuming that one or more of those factors is always present, what happens once you light up that can speed up bonding with another person. These ideas are explored from my own personal experience and looking back at a decade or more of my own smoking, while trying to evaluate the emotions I went through on numerous occasions when I was in the smoking circle.

The High – As a smoker, you’ve anchored good feelings to having a smoke. Whether it’s stress relief, or after a meal, or just taking a few minutes off. The act of having a cigarette releases endorphins, and swings your emotions, usually in a good direction. While I’m clearly not a neurologist or neuroscientist, I can tell a lot of the time when I’m releasing endorphins. For example; take the buzz you have when you come out of a great movie.  You have to talk about it, or tell someone else what you liked. Or, if you’ve ever been skydiving, bungee jumping or some kind of extreme sport, it is almost impossible not to talk about how good the rush feels while you’re in the afterglow of the moment. The fix from a cigarette is a mild form of these for most smokers. It loosens you up. This is a perfect setting in order to stimulate conversation with new people, share a fun or enjoyable experience or just take the risk of talking about something new with an associate or colleague. When you and someone else light up together, you are feeling better than you did 5 seconds ago, and it spurs the tendency to reach out.

The Journey – The very term “smoke break” indicates you are stepping away from something for a bit. Whether walking outdoors from a concert or stepping out of work for 10 minutes you are actively putting yourself outside a situation, with the ability to look in. There’s a high likelihood that anyone outside has been going through the same thing as you. As fun as it is to sit and think by yourself, it’s more likely that you’re going to reach out and see if someone else feels the same. We’re largely social animals and we want to share our journeys. As an example, imagine you’re at a concert, and you want to take a break to collect yourself. ::Walk outside the bar::Pause::Light cigarette::Look at someone::Say “Blah blah Violet Bicycle are killing it, right!?”:: That’s it. New person met. New conversation started. And the threshold to instigate that conversation is artificially low because not only were you just doing the same thing, but you’re now doing another same thing.

The Safety – One of the most annoying things as a smoker is other people telling you your habit is gross, harmful or imposing. To a smoker, it’s not gross. We know it’s harmful, and we’re constantly being banished further and further from the proximity of the non-smoking public. I’m not here to debate whether smoking bans in and around establishments are right or not, but I am saying that those laws create a feeling of being an “outsider” for smokers. In which case, you know who isn’t an outsider…another smoker. They are in it with you. Generally, they won’t judge you for also smoking. This premise goes sideways if you’re smoking clove cigarettes. But for most of us, or even the most socially challenged, you can see that you have at least one thing in common with this other person and that gives you at least one thing to talk about right there.

 

Probably a safe move to close by saying I’m not advocating that everyone try smoking just to see if it’s easier to talk to people. But I do think that there are some real, valuable takeaways from looking at the dynamics of smokers and how they interact,  maybe even looking for ways to replicate those dynamics for other social events such as conferences, team buildings, and meetings.  Time is a  luxury in these short-lived events, and building deep connections is the focus. Looking at what can create the parameters for a shared journey, a feeling of safety and an elevated mood could be a serious shortcut to forming deep bonds.

To end on an anecdote –  When I was a smoker, and a frequent traveler I would never bring a lighter with me. It forced me to always ask someone for help. I’ve met people from my hometown in Stratford, Ontario while all the way across the world in front of a hotel lobby in Bangkok, Thailand. I’ve started conversations with girls who I would end up dating and been invited to a huge after party or two Toronto, just from striking up conversations over a smoke. Sometimes it’s nice when the first step is easy rather than hard.

Got a smoke?

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