“Do you HAVE to talk to everyone?!” My sister sighed with exasperation as we pulled away from the toll booth. I had exchanged a few pleasantries with the toll booth attendant, whom upon our initial approach was expressionless and was just going through the motions of her job. I made a point of putting on my warmest smile, exercised my “please” and “thank yous”, and commented on the weather. Within seconds, I had the attendant smiling and my heart was light as I drove away. What my sister didn’t realize was I was performing magic: the magic of words.
I was traveling with a couple of colleagues to New York by train for a business meeting on a hot summer day when the conductor sauntered down the aisle checking for tickets. He did not look happy. “Good morning!” I piped up with exuberance. He startled. “Good morning.” Not quite sure what to make of me. I don’t recall what I said, but by the time he was finished with our tickets, he had broken into a smile and one could almost see the knots in his brows melt away. “Do you HAVE to talk to everyone?!” My seat mate mused. Ah, they have much to learn.
Remember the saying about “sticks and stones”? Well…..that’s true and false to a certain degree. Words can and do hurt. The perfect example is one that was collected in a wonderful book, Simple Little Words, by Michelle Cox & John Perrodin, about an eighty year-old woman named Beatrice Pearl as she recalled a painful experience: (excerpt) Tears welled in Bea’s eyes as she recalled the day her teacher slammed a paper down on her tiny desk, pointed to a word on it, and demanded, “What does that say?” “Oh, that says ‘Pearl’, ma’am. That’s my middle name.” little Beatrice beamed. “Well,” snapped the teacher, “don’t you write that name until you can shine like one.” Bea’s lips quivered, her voice faltered as she tried to choke back the surge of welling tears. She was only six. It would be another thirty-one years before she could write her middle name without crying. As the author wrote: What if that teacher had used the same energy, the same number of words, to relay a different message? “Pearl? That’s a precious gem. One day you will shine like one.” One dozen words and a heart broke. One dozen words and a heart could have bloomed. Bingo.
I was returning from an exhausting business trip overseas, my body ached, my head was pounding, and every fiber of my being was threatening to shut down as I dragged my feet through the Immigration line – my least favorite part of flight travel as I had encountered way too many rude and crabby Immigration Officers in my many years of travels. But I really didn’t care this time, because I was crabby too and just wanted to get home. The line was moving swiftly as the serious-looking officer processed everyone’s passports efficiently, with barely a nod. I handed mine over when my turn came and not having forgotten my manners, I managed to squeak out a weak “hello”. His eyebrows shot up a couple of centimeters, but maintained his stern posture. “Business trip?” I didn’t see him asking anyone else questions, why me? “Yes. It was a quick trip and I’m exhausted.” I was so tired the words must have sounded like I was about to cry. Like a miracle, his facial features softened almost immediately. “Welcome home.” He said, as he handed my passport back to me. I was stunned at such kind and unexpected words. All I could do was stare at him. What I really wanted to do was jump over the counter and give him a hug. To let him know that at that particular moment and time, as my body and soul were utterly drained, he had said the sweetest words. Words that immediately acted like a soft blanket that comforted me. Words that say, hey, you’ve had a long day, we’re so glad you’re home. I have never forgotten that moment and never will.
One more story.
I never cared for the front office people at my doctor’s office. There was no warmth in their demeanor, and they always seem indifferent to anyone calling either in person or on the phone. There were three office staff behind the desk when I walked in for my appointment this morning. One was on the phone, another with her back to me taking care of paperwork. The third one came to the window and asked for my name, no greeting, no smile. Sigh. It’s time for some magic again. “Do you have the same insurance?” She asked as she pulled out my file. “Ooh, I don’t think so, it’s been awhile since my last visit, hasn’t it?” No answer. After looking through some papers, she asked: “Golden Rule?” “Nope, it’s Aetna now. Wow, it HAS been awhile! When was my last visit?” She looked, “2009.” “Yikes. My mom used to tell me that the older we get, the faster time seems to fly, and I never believed her!” Wait for it…… “Sometimes I open my mouth and I realize I sound just like my mother!” AND. SHE. SMILED. Mission accomplished. I laughed, “I don’t mind becoming my mom. But I’ve warned my husband never to turn into my mother-in-law! Ha!” Her smile got bigger as she rolled her eyes in mock disgust, “I know exactly what you mean!” The person with her back to us chuckled. There we go. By the time I walked out we were all smiles. Now isn’t that much better?
I’m no doctor, scholar or guru. I’m not going to write some psychobabble article analyzing what words can and cannot do. In fact, I don’t have to, because you know exactly what I’m trying to say, don’t you? The right words at the right time do wonders. Try it. At the bank, supermarket, gas station. When you’re talking to the mailman, teacher, the guy behind the deli counter. Make someone’s life brighter because they’ve met you. The right gesture, the right words. Make them sincere and genuine. Or how about a wink and a nod? Show that you care. Let’s all be human again instead of mindless drones stuck in the rat race of life. I triple dare you put a smile on the face of everyone you meet tomorrow.
And the day after.
And the day after that….