What It’s Like to Use Beautiful Words, According to Science
I am a collector of hidden treasures in plain sight. Words — simple, ordinary words — used slightly differently can uplift our conversations.
1. Something vs. Anything: What I learned from Doctor’s language.
Prof. John Heritage of University of California, Los Angles studied how patients responded to a simple follow-up question, “is there anything else we need to take care of today?” To compare the results, one set of doctors used a small twist, “is there something else we need to take care of today?”
The something option provided statistically significant increase of reporting concerns. You are welcome to dwell into the technical details of the research here.
I discovered the practical punch line to be immensely useful — you have a friend mourning through a loss or you sense that your boss is in a pickle.
“Is there something I can do?” works wonders compared to “is there anything I can do?”
Try it. It sprinkles positivity. You are happy you could do something and they are happy you helped out on something.
2. Yet to discover a power word subtler that ‘yet’.
One of the fun things I learned over dinner table banter is about fortune cookies. -“When you crack open the cookie, find the treasure trove of words in that white sheet of paper, read it once and read it again and add the words, ‘in the bed’ to the end and it could give you a chuckle”
In the serious world of perfectionist — there is a serious climb from not knowing to knowing it well. That journey is hard. For an elementary school going child it could be “I can’t do division.” For a fresh graduate, “I don’t know how to code.”
Adding the word yet at the end of sentence converts it into a power play.
“I can’t do division, yet”
“I don’t know how to code, yet”
If you ever feel that you are too old for yet, remember ten years hence is similar to today — ten years ago. Sam Levenson, said it best:
Your “good old days” are still ahead of you, may you have many of them.”
― Sam Levenson, In One Era & Out the Other
3. ‘Today’ makes a world of difference
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, lost her husband in an accident. When her emotions were raw and vulnerable, well meaning folks had well intended words –“how are you?”
Her inner turmoil, in her words, “I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?”
In the same breath, she wished a word was added at the end –today. It did a world of difference — a focus on the moment vs. generalities.
In her words, “When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”
Since then, I have used “how are you today?” to great effect.
4. ‘Because’ is the best word to append — ask a kindergartner.
Ask a kindergartner — “Why is the sky blue?”
If you sample enough, one of the answers would be a variant of this — “The sky is blue because I like blue.”
And that answer works. You are puzzled. Not Harvard Professor Ellen Langer.
In 1978, she created an experiment for people to cut line at the copy machine.
- Pool 1, baseline : “Excuse me, I have some copies to make. May I use the Xerox machine?”
- Pool 2, rationale reason: “Excuse me, I have some copies to make. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
- Pool 3, Innocent style: “Excuse me, I have some copies to make. May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make copies?”
Pool 1: 60% let her cut line; Pool 2: 94% let her and Pool 3: 93%!!!
Bottom line — we humans like the idea of reason rather than reason itself because we are humans.
Bottomline, kindergartners are more persuasive than we give them credit for.
5. I use “I” instead of you — in difficult situations that matter.
This one has no psychology research pinning this. I found this immensely useful in professional life and personal life.
“You didn’t explain this point.” Vs. “I didn’t understand this point.”
Life is lived through time and yet defined by moments. In the depth of our emotions, in the deepest valleys of our anger, we are remembered by how we react. Put succinctly, we are remembered on how we make others feel.
In that context, we are all taught not to point a finger at others. Very few of us are coached to use the “I” when it matters.