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The limits of euphemism

Daniel Howden
Daniel Howden

Daniel was a VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian.

As individuals it is likely that we have differing degrees of tolerance for being spoken to indirectly. And yet most of us are either approaching, or have already reached, our limit in terms of euphemism.

I reached mine when I was asked by a company I was then working for to identify four positives about a colleague and four “deltas.” I’m not a particular fan of horizontal appraisals but that wasn’t my problem. What I disliked intensely was the notion that my colleague or I would somehow be fooled into believing that “deltas” were anything but a substitute for negatives.

It’s questionable whether enforcing equivalence on our positive and negative views of colleagues is useful. It’s unquestionably daft to believe that setting up an opposition between positives and deltas will do anything to soften the procedure.

There is a two-part justification at play here. Firstly, that I will be less offended by the notion of providing a delta than a negative and, secondly, that I will more readily supply deltas than negatives. While this thinking is wrong, unfortunately it is also influential. Business, especially human resources, has an almost boundless addiction to euphemism.

We have the ancient Greeks to thank for euphemism, although they deployed it with mercifully more wit and meaning that we have of late. You don’t have to be a classicist to wield the word “blaspheme” (to speak evil of). To “eupheme” was to speak well of — or use words of good omen. Of course euphemism itself was a euphemism to the Greeks, for whom it meant “to speak well by not speaking of.” A concept popularized in more recent euphemism by such phrases as “keeping mum” or simply “leaving well alone.”

From such pacifist beginnings euphemism came to be the favored resort of those with sinister intentions. George Orwell tackled euphemism in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language.

It was needed, he argued, to defend actions which were so abhorrent they could be defended “but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims.” Orwell was particularly sharp in identifying the tendency to use grandstanding euphemism to elevate unpopular actions:

“The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

It’s important at this stage to distinguish between euphemism and the whole tired, trudging army of cliche which marches with us into the office every day. Yes, Orwell would be horrified by our contemporary confusion of nouns and verbs (a gift is a noun that you receive and not a verb with which you give). And buzzwords and jargon, while they overlap with some euphemisms, and are the enemy of plain-speaking and clear communication are not the ground contested in this fight.

It is no coincidence that the densest crop of euphemism centers on firing people. Bob Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford, set himself and readers of his Work Matters blog the task of collating all the popular euphemisms deployed to let you know you’ve lost your job. He collected 24 and there is a palpable difference between the genteel or technocratic euphemisms that were spoken down from management to employees: where there is a “reduction in force” and organizations are “right-sized” or “simplified.” And the sideways euphemisms of colleagues who note that Harry was “shit-canned,” “whacked” or “walked out the door.”

In fact, Sutton and his readers fell some way short of exhausting the sacking euphemism as the New York Times found 48 of them in a similar exercise. The popularity of alternatives in this aspect of business speaks to the true purpose of euphemism: that it allows an emotional distance between the words spoken and the actions commissioned.

Researchers Matthew S. McGlone and Jennifer A. Batchelor set out to discover whose face was really being saved in the mealy-mouthed arena of euphemism in a study for the Journal of Communication.

“Communicators have two possible motives for referring to a distasteful topic euphemistically: to minimize threat to the addressee’s face and to minimize threat to their own,” the authors argued in their 2003 paper Looking Out for Number One: Euphemism and Face.

They conducted an experiment in which respondents were shown a series of photographs, one of which would be something like dog piss. They would then describe these images to another person whom they could not see. Some of the participants were told they would meet the recipient afterwards and others weren’t.

They found that “euphemisms were used to describe the distasteful stimuli more frequently among participants who believed their identities would be disclosed to the recipient.” In other words, everyone got coy when they thought they were writing to someone they’d actually meet.

“Communicators are inclined to use euphemisms more for self-presentational purposes than out of concern for their addressees’ sensibilities.”

You were not “redirected” to save your feelings but those of the person who informed you.

Not everything in the world of business euphemism is about saving face. Sometimes it is deployed on the assumption that people are more willing to do something when asked indirectly.

Much of the tender language surrounding job appraisals is rooted in the belief that people will more readily participate in a process when it sounds harmless and well-intentioned. This is what academics Terri L. Rittenburg, George Albert Gladney and Teresa Stephenson, looked at in their paper on The Effects of Euphemism in Business.

The authors began with the contention that “the use of euphemisms decreases transparency yet is increasing in business and business education” and they went on to assess the impact of euphemism on people’s willingness to perform actions. Using some carefully structured scenarios and a simple yes/no response, they found that participants were more likely to perform actions framed in direct language.“Greater transparency includes more straight talk and less euphemism and is recommended to ensure employees’ understanding and implementation of ethical business actions,” they concluded.

Our attachment to euphemism is normally thought to begin in infancy when coy parents substitute playful words for the more straightforward language of defecating and urinating. But there is little reason to believe that what works when negotiating the toilet habits of toddlers will have equal utility in the workplace. Adults rarely enjoy being spoken to like children.

The Economist Style Guide, which is not known for insulting anyone’s intelligence, advises that writers should avoid, where possible euphemisms and circumlocutions. This does not amount to “being insensitive of giving offense,” it’s just that the “good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to manners.”

There are a great many managers who would do as well as writers to heed this advice.

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