By Paul Yoon
She passed away. She died.
He was let go. He was fired.
They’re just differently-abled. They’re just handicapped.
Merriam-Webster defines euphemisms as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.” In other words, euphemisms soften language, which can mean a variety of things. To be conservative, someone might replace “pornography” with “adult entertainment” if speaking to a group of high school students. Many may find it less offensive for a vet to “put to sleep” a family’s Labrador rather than to “euthanize” it. In these cases, euphemisms improve mutual communication by cushioning harsh language, either creating a more formal environment or easing the pain of those facing tragedy. However, while euphemisms can improve our communication, they can have negative effects as well, and it is important for us to make this distinction.
In one of his standup shows, the late comedian George Carlin highlighted an example of how euphemisms can strip away meaning and negatively influence decision-making. He explains how “post-traumatic stress disorder”, or PTSD, went through numerous name changes, from “shellshock” during WWI, to “battle fatigue” during WWII, to “operational exhaustion” during the Korean War, and finally to its current term during the Vietnam War. During this evolution, PTSD, which requires careful medical attention, has had “the humanity…squeezed completely out.” Carlin then asserts that more Vietnam War veterans would have received proper treatment and benefits if the condition’s name was still as visceral as its original moniker.
A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics shows that Carlin might be right about the impact euphemisms can have, particularly on the actions of others. Two groups of research participants were presented the same hypothetical business case and asked to make an unethical business decision involving bribing government officials. The prompts presented to each group were identical except for the word “bribe.” For one group, “bribe” was replaced with “soft commission,” a euphemism. Participants faced with the euphemized version of “bribe” were more likely to approve the decision, displaying how euphemisms can carry influencing power and possibly lead to unethical actions.
Euphemisms also play an enormous part in protecting an individual or entity’s reputation. Businesses, with the pressure to please many different stakeholders, are huge culprits of euphemizing words and phrases. For example, after facing several tumultuous years, one of the largest American engine manufacturers detailed its “professional…involuntary employee separation programs” in its 10-K. To put it plainly, the company fired thousands of employees. The company likely had its various stakeholders in mind when choosing this wording, perhaps afraid of harming public sentiment.
Euphemization is a fine line for businesses. As Michael North, a Management and Organizations professor at Stern, put it, “although businesses have a responsibility for transparency, and to own up to mistakes, they also have a responsibility to stakeholders to present themselves in the best possible light, and so it becomes a sticky issue as to how direct they truly can be in all situations.” Regarding the aforementioned act of euphemizing layoffs, he stated, “this type of beating around the bush can definitely backfire and make you look cowardly,” highlighting the importance of public relations, brand image, and communication management. On the other hand, Professor North added that euphemisms can help someone be a good manager, recalling a former boss who would give tasks to him by starting with “It would be great if you could…” rather than “I want you to…”. This improved Professor North’s attitude towards the job.
Words have always carried significant influence and have become more potent as technology advancements spur the ease of communication. Nathaniel Hawthorne, someone not too unfamiliar with words himself , once said “how potent for good and evil [words] become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” For students entering the workforce and striving to become future business leaders, it is important to be conscientious of what words can convey and how they might influence others’ actions and perceptions. Euphemisms can carry considerable weight, and it is crucial to be cognizant of their effects.