Charlie Dexter

Charlie Dexter

Do you remember when we were verbally assaulted by the playground bully back in first grade? Do you remember what we said? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as we gave the bully a royal raspberry.

Then, we immediately discovered that sticking our tongues out and raspberrying bullies was a bad idea. Words really can hurt, leaving scars on the receiver as well as, in the case of this particular raspberry, scars on the sender.

Certainly, words can be powerful weapons for human emotional destruction, but they can also be powerful emotional tools for good.

Last semester, I assigned students in my human relations classes to pay five sincere compliments (operant word being “sincere”) and then deliberately observe and report back any change in their “test subjects” as a result of their compliment. One student wrote this: “Words can be like verbal ‘slaps,’ but they can also be like verbal ‘kisses.’” She related being at a local sandwich shop and just before leaving, she went up to the overworked and underpaid sandwich maker to thank her for making one of the most delicious sandwiches she had ever eaten. My student said that verbal “kiss” left a bright glow on the sandwich maker’s face.

Do we express enough appreciation for the everyday ordinary — as well as the occasional extraordinary — service we get from coworkers, service providers and vendors? I would like to postulate that we as consumers of customer service also have a human responsibility to serve those who serve us.

It is a paradox, but when we give verbal “kisses” to others without expectation of gain, we receive back far more than we give. To illustrate, I once had a boss who knew how to appropriately “kiss” the people around him. We shall call him “Jake” (since that is his name). Jake had more than 100 full-time faculty and staff, but he knew every one of our names, our spouse and our children’s names, important dates like birthdays and anniversaries, joys and sorrows. He would make a point of spending a few minutes each week building up each of us by sharing time and attention. If we were mentioned in the newspaper he would clip the article and handwrite a congratulatory note.

Isn’t it an interesting coincidence that Jake got promoted to a much bigger job and retired as a Vice Chancellor Emeritus? I, and others, still feel the glow of his “kisses” years later. What goes around really does come around.

I promise to sow more verbal “kisses” for the next 21 days (it takes 21 days to create a new habit). I promise to thank each of my colleagues for their work in helping students and, especially, Mark for being a great department head, Michele for being a terrific dean, as well as thanking each staff member who keeps our school running. I may even leave the midnight janitor, who I have never met, a “love” note for discretely cleaning up my major messes every night.

Certainly the Newsminer staff deserves my expressed appreciation for staying up very late on Friday evenings fixing all the spelling and grammar whoopses in my Inside Business columns. 

The reward for this kind of behavior isn’t what we get for it, but rather what we, and those we touch, become through it. As we enjoy the remaining warmth of summer and look forward to the fall, may each of us choose our words more deliberately and compassionately. In so doing, I promise each of us will become more useful and prosperous business people.

Charlie Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. He can be reached at charlie.dexter@alaska.edu. This column is provided as a public service of the UAF Applied Business Department.