Roy Exum: How To Say Something Kind

Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I like to think I that I am “good on my feet,” creative and adept when it comes to saying something nice, or reaffirming, when I think it might be helpful to another soul. The other day I came across an article during my morning reading entitled, “10 Insanely Nice Things You Can Say to Anybody,” and I read every one of them. Trust me, this is important stuff in a world that increasingly needs it.

The article, written by gifted Leigh Newman who is the deputy editor of, was a delight and something you might expect from someone whose author’s profile reads, “She believes in making your own popcorn, embarrassing your kids by writing I LOVE YOU in red frosting on their lunch sandwiches, and owning dogs that are just way too big to fit in the bed.”

As I read each “Insanely Nice Thing” I was reminded of “The Greatest Seven Words Ever Said.” I can remember when-and-where I heard the kindest seven words I have ever known but, first, here are Leigh “Top Ten” because she has some winners:

* * *

"Take your time. I'm not in a rush." (especially in the Christmas season)

"Three different sources have confirmed that you're generous, nice to animals and funny."

"The way you eat a sandwich is so elegant"

"I saw what you did, and please don't think I'm a nut case, but it restored my faith in the human race."

"You have a genius not understood by mere mortals."

"That's awful." (to someone who has just suffered an accident or hardship).

"I love the sound of your voice."

"I am not inviting HIM to my birthday party." (to your best friend after she has just been dumped by her boyfriend)

"You bring me joy. You make me happy."

"I just can't make this decision without you."

* * *

Many years ago I invited to an editor’s meeting at Reader’s Digest and we were at this centuries-old farmhouse in Pleasantville, N.Y. The gorgeous house had been restored and had a massive table big enough for 13 or 14 people. After the plates were pushed away, we began talking about the art of writing positive stories, tales that inspire readers. Reader’s Digest is still pretty good at it and I had a wonderful time with the group.

One editor who had been at the magazine a number of years listened to us younger ones banter back and forth. He was quiet yet absorbed every word and towards the end of meeting he told me that a good read isn’t necessarily a lengthy read. He also said that the KISS rule is vital in every story: “Keep It Short and Sweet” but I always liked the alternate better, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

He nodded with an appropriate chuckle and said the best story he had read was “The Greatest Seven Words Ever Said.” So as we perked our ears to hear the story, he explained that, many years before, every elementary teacher in America was tasked to check each student’s ability to hear. She would take each student into the hallway, right outside on the classroom, and whisper in first one ear and then the other. This is really how it was done back when I was still in short pants.

It seems that in a third-grade class there was a smaller-than-normal girl who had a cleft palate. Not only was she embarrassed by it but, as is sometimes the case, her hearing was partially impaired in her left ear. She was mortified by the test; the last thing the delicate little girl wanted or needed was another problem.

But the teacher called her to the door and the two went into the hall. The teacher leaned to the child’s right ear and whispered quietly, “Show me three fingers.” Instantly the girl grinned and shot her hand high in the air, three fingers outstretched.

Then the teacher leaned close to the girl’s left ear and in a voice not so low the right ear would miss it she whispered seven words that the child, nor I, will ever forget: “I wish … you were my little girl.”

Say something kind to someone today, hopefully a total stranger. Something short but sweet, because there is not much that is more powerful than kind words.

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