By Leigh Newman
Columnist Leigh Newman weighs in on the tiny but enormously kind things you can say that may change a person's day -- and (sometimes) even their way of looking at themselves.
'Take Your Time. I'm Not In A Rush.'
This one is great for the grocery store, the takeout burrito restaurant or anywhere else that involves really tired people trying their best, even as they fumble and flail. For example, the woman in front of you pays the cashier but then has to rifle through her overstuffed wallet to put away the change, then store the receipt, then mash the whole fat leather money accordion into her purse. She will usually complete this action with frantic fingers because she knows she's delaying the whole line; she knows everybody just wants to go home; and she knows she should not save old, mostly-used-up gift cards with 63 cents on them. Telling her to "Take your time. I'm not in rush" always sets off the same reaction: first, surprise (really? because everybody's in a rush...) and then a flash of sweet wide-open relief. You have just given somebody a three-minute holiday, not from the stress of life, but from the stress we put on ourselves.
'Three Different Sources Have Confirmed That You're Generous, Nice To Animals And Funny.'
It happens all the time during coffee dates or lunches at work -- a friend's name comes up in conversation and everyone there suddenly begins to talk about how amazing this person is: for example, how whip-smart she was during the budget meeting, how kind she was to the obviously lonely woman in production, how she always smells a little like fresh vanilla cupcakes. Unfortunately, due to her absence, she'll never know about this avalanche of admiration -- unless you inform her. Passing along the descriptions will not only make her feel quite special for possessing these characteristics, but it will also disable the compliment-deflecting shield that so many of us have, because by delivering this praise, you can't possibly just be trying to "cheer her up" or trying to "be sweet." You didn't actually say those things. Other people did.
'The Way You Eat A Sandwich Is So Elegant.'
Long ago, when I was a young student and traveled, a Frenchman said this to me. He was not my boyfriend or interested in becoming my boyfriend or even interesting in just having sex with a cheerful American. He was dating one of the most beautiful people on the planet, a woman who was snuggled up on his arm like a tall, dark luxurious human stole. What the two of them were doing at a student cafeteria, I will never understand. And yet, as we stood together at the counter, strangers eating our ham-and-cheeses, he noticed a habit I had developed of taking very small bites off the huge long hunk of bread and wiping all the little flakey crumbs that showered down onto my chin with a napkin. Twenty years later, when I think of this comment, a little sunset still glows inside me. Because -- and this is a little embarrassing -- I had worked at sandwich eating. Eating a sandwich in France is the European equivalent of eating a large drippy log-size burrito, due the size of thick baguettes and the overuse of butter. I wanted it to do to it with a wee less glop and a wee more class. Somewhere in your life, someone is carefully serving your salad before serving themselves. What's interesting is that very, very few people notice it. We expect good table manners and usually only comment on the bad. Praising something that's this invisible not only makes a person feel good for doing what they've done (improving the view during dinner) but also for what it cost them -- which, when it come to manners, means things like not getting to lick the chocolate sludge at the bottom of the ice cream bowl.
'I Saw What You Did, And Please Don't Think I'm A Nut Case, But It Restored My Faith In The Human Race.'
Oh, the things people do! The woman who climbs up the two flights of stairs at the train station, then climbs back down them to help an old man with his suitcase. The strange little man who walks around downtown slipping packages of cookies into the bags of the sleeping homeless people. The guy who picks up the public trash can on the corner that fell over. Everybody walking by notices these tiny kindnesses. So few will take the socially risky, even embarrassing step of approaching the complete stranger who's done them and thanking him or her for what they're really doing -- helping us remember that, despite the constant headlines, human beings don't just invent Ponzi schemes and burn up the ozone. They also offer to share their umbrellas with strangers during pouring thunderstorms, even if it means their backpack will be a little wet.
'You Have A Genius Not Understood By Mere Mortals.'
This was probably said to Einstein. But you can say it to anybody in those moments, say, when you catch your new boyfriend in the shower... with his yoga mat. Or you go over to your best friend's house and find her layering her sandwich like this: <em>ham, cheese, lettuce, onion, ham, cheese, lettuce, onion, hamcheeselettuceonion</em>. We all have these quirky rituals. They are a little screwball. We usually do them alone. But they save time (for example, rinsing off a yoga mat while you rinse yourself) or just work better (for example, making 12 individual layers of sandwich filling ensures that you'll get a little taste of all the flavors in each bite, instead of, say, just a hunk of ham and lettuce or a mouthful of onion and cheese. Understanding the reasoning behind these private processes and praising the person for them is a moment of respect. You're not saying that you are going to do it at your house -- which would be a lie -- but you are saying that their idea makes sense, right in the moment they most expect to be ridiculed for being a complete kook.
Sometimes, the nicest thing you can do is not to ask a bunch of probing, sensitive questions ("So what are you really feeling? Shock? Terror?"). Or try to think of way you can fix it ("Have you looked into natural herbs? Have you called those clinics in Bora Bora?"). Or to offer to help ("I'll drive you! I'll clean your house! I'll make you a lasagna!"). Or even to apologize over and over, explaining that you know that you didn't make the horrible event happen, you're just sorry it happened. Sometimes you need to take <em>you</em> out of it. A person in your life is upset and scared and maybe even in denial. Recognizing what's really happening gives that person the rare and much-needed opportunity to look at this terrible thing <em>with</em> somebody, instead of alone.
'I Love The Sound Of Your Voice.'
Just go say this to the nearest three people you like. Watch what happens.
'I Am Not Inviting HIM To My Birthday Party.'
Everybody wants to feel protected -- especially when they've been dumped. Offering to full-on hate somebody's ex certainly lets her know that you're on her side. But hate is exhausting; hate sucks a lot of energy. Plus, it doesn't make rational sense if you never even met the ex. Instead, take the kind of loyal, immature path of kindergartners all over the world and declare the offender crossed off your birthday list. Not only will it make that injured party in question laugh, but it also creates the pleasing fantasy of her drinking champagne and dancing on a table while the dumper sits home in front of the TV, crying over a carton of cold limp egg foo yung.
'You Bring Me Joy. You Make Me Happy.'
There's ticker tape in most of our brains that spits out these kinds of loving phrases at regular intervals throughout the day. But the phrases themselves don't make it to our mouth, because they seem cheesy or we don't know the person well enough or we were raised by people who shook our hands (or worse) when they really wanted to hug us. Interestingly enough, people don't titter nervously when you say these so-called "overused" things to them. Nor do they run away. They may smile wildly or just slightly, but inside, little Roman candles of happiness are going off. Just say it, and if that's too goofy or embarrassing, text it.
'I Just Can't Make This Decision Without You.'
Everybody likes to be liked for who they are. But there's a special kind of glow that comes when somebody likes what you <em>think</em>, when you know that what they want is your help in making a decision or in figuring out a messy problem. This may also be another way of expressing that most honored of human emotions: trust.