Can You Be a Helper?

Submitted By:
Jessica Flaxman, Rye Country Day School, Rye, NY

Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger
Harper Collins, March 7, 2023

Schools are steeped in language and communication at every level, from the pre-kindergarten classroom to the senior seminar. Word study, word choice, and word order are foundational elements of a child’s education and a school’s ethos. In a world where the wrong word at the wrong time or place can tear at the fabric of a school community, wouldn’t it be nice to know some magic words? Just in time, Jonah Berger’s Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way, a research-driven playbook, identifies several powerful words that can help us to forge and fortify relationships. Based on data collected through natural language processing tools that analyze word frequency and efficacy, Berger makes the case for simple shifts in our language including turning actions into identities – for example, rather than say to a child, “can you help clean up the blocks,” ask, “can you be a helper and clean up the blocks?” – and using could instead of should. Berger argues against language that hedges (“a bit”; “I guess”; “maybe”) in favor of decisive language (“definitely”; “clearly”; “unquestionably”) and makes a strong case for using the present rather than the past tense when storytelling. Berger is not only interested in speaking, however, but also in listening – using concrete, detailed language in response to what others are saying to us can work real magic when it comes to demonstrating attention and care.

Teaching Practice
Psychology & Human Development