Use of euphemisms—or a ton of BS—should alert you to areas where actions are shameful

It’s commonplace for people and organizations to use euphemisms and polite circumlocutions to try to hide dirty deeds. That’s why you should be on the alert whenever you hear one—or use one yourself.

When someone wants to mention an action they feel shame about, they nearly always resort to a vague form of words that sanitizes their meaning without actually naming the deed openly.

Our society has many taboos. Sex is one of them, so descriptions of sexual acts are hidden behind jokey circumlocutions or disarmed by ponderous, scientific wording. Death is another unmentionable. Listen to the TV or radio and you’ll discover that almost nobody today ever dies. They “pass” or “pass over.”

The world of work is riddled with similar ways of referring to actions that those in charge feel sufficiently uneasy about. People are rarely fired by the organization to cut costs and boost profits. The business is “downsized” or “right-sized”, which sound more like objective activities that only accidentally result in people losing their jobs.

Top executives naturally, are never fired at all. They “leave to pursue other interests” or to “spend more time with their family” which seems a rather sudden change of heart, since many of them spent almost no time anywhere save at their executive desks or in swanky hotels while they still had their jobs.

A wave of passivity

The other common verbal trick is to express all doubtful actions in the past and with the passive voice.

Not only does this have the advantage of making it sound as if it’s all over and done—so opponents can be accused of raking up up old, long-dead issues—it avoids attaching any name to the action which might point the blame where it rightly belongs.

Business leaders solemnly admit that “mistakes were made” and never explain by whom1. They are willing to agree that “certain decisions proved to be less than optimal” (whatever that means), but carefully avoid saying whose decisions those might have been. Thus they tacitly acknowledge the mess, even as they neatly side-step any responsibility for it.

Steaming mounds of BS

If all else fails, there are always the trusty tools of jargon and BS.

Either of these manglings of the language effectively robs whatever words are used of any force or meaning. Together, they produce an effect on the understanding like a thick fog: clinging, wet, and impossible to see any light through.

An organization committed to “optimizing stock holder returns in the face of the increasing pressures due to globalization” is probably saying that it intends to increase the share price and boost profits by outsourcing all production to Outer Mongolia—but it’s quite hard to be sure.

One that is “seeking to attract the highest calibre of executive leadership by reviewing the available incentives to persons of outstanding talent and innovative ability to make their careers with this organization in the light of the global nature of current talent management” is really saying that it intends to pay favored executives more than anyone else in the world.

All this would be an irritating, if largely harmless, exercise in “double-speak” were it not for the way each euphemism or case of BS points clearly to an area that people are too ashamed of to express openly.

A lurking sense of shame

Do macho organizations and leaders have a conscience? Are they ever ashamed of what they do?

On the surface, the answer appears to be “no”, but underneath that feeling of unease is still there. Whether it’s called “using spin” or “being alert to the PR implications”, the words leaders use constantly give them away.

The more opaque the language, the less pride or confidence those using it have in whatever they are describing.

For the rest of us, such words should be an immediate warning that something is happening that we should be concerned about. No one uses euphemisms, jargon, or BS to describe what they are proud of. “I won”, they say; not “in a competitive circumstance, based on the presence of a number of persons or organizations, each seeking to optimize the eventual result in their favor, success was achieved on our part such as to result in the most favorable outcome possible.”

Coming closer to home

How often are you also responsible for using euphemisms or jargon to describe actions that you would rather nobody else noticed?

If you hear yourself using weasel words or polite circumlocutions; if you notice that the passive voice has become your natural way of speaking or writing, stop and take note.

You can run from the rest of the world behind a cloud of BS, but you can’t hide from your own consciousness. What you won’t describe openly, you shouldn’t be doing. Never mind the polite words. A jerk is still a jerk, whatever other names he or she hides behind.

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  1. It definitely wasn’t them, of course!