Common Ground: Learning how to make people smile

I’m normally in a rush to cross the Mississippi River bridge where East and West Baton Rouge meet.

But if there’s an afternoon traffic jam on top of the bridge, I just might take a moment to look through my window and watch the river’s current or follow the paths of barges and tugboats.

A few weeks ago, I boarded a steamboat in New Orleans where I spent hours gazing at the splendor of this enormous body of water and the downtown landscape.

But as much of an impression as the river made, it was our hostess, Ms. Jo Jo, who really caught my attention. Her sparkling smile and easygoing demeanor reminded me of the calm, relaxing, shimmering water that day on the Mississippi.

A jazz band played in the background while my family and I dined on hot fried catfish, red beans and rice and bread pudding.

We peered through the boat’s windows as the Steamboat Natchez narrator directed us to look at a passing cruise ship, industrial plants, cargo boats and some of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina that still lingers.

Ms. Jo Jo, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, visited our table several times, bringing us a complimentary rum punch, and we exchanged stories about our families.

She smiled and hugged us and talked about her love for Louisiana culture and its people. “It’s like a great big bear hug,” she said. “I chat with people from all walks of life.”

Following the death of one of her children and other challenges, Ms. Jo Jo moved to New Orleans in 2010. The transition was not too bad. “I have wonderful friends here that are like family, some I grew up with in Kentucky,” she said, including the boat’s captain, who also is from Kentucky.

“How do you do it?” I asked her. “How do you make people happy?”

She responded with ease. “The secret to making most people feel good is to be genuine and to really listen when you are chatting with them,” she told me. “Fake is not fun. So, I don’t allow it when I am speaking to someone.”

Her comments made me think.

How often are we too rushed to stop and talk to people we meet inside stores or businesses or in doctor’s offices? How genuine are our “hi’s and hello’s.” I know when I am rushing, I’m not always as genuine as I should be.

That’s why meeting Ms. Jo Jo felt like I’d met someone I have known all of my life.

When my family entered that cruise ship, Ms. Jo Jo’s gaze never looked through us or past us.

“What I love about my job is making people happy,” she said. “Being a hostess on the Natchez and meeting so many wonderful people is exhilarating.”

Thanks, Ms. Jo Jo, for reminding us to care, smile and to savor each moment.

Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at chantewriter@hotmail.com.