Change a Word. Change the Mood.

Safety_OfficerIn a music blog I stumbled on, the blogger commented on the tunes and vibes of a particular music festival, but he also noticed something else – a subtle word choice that turned out to be very profound for concertgoers. Apparently, the officers at the festival were called “Safety,” not “Security.”  As the writer noted, “I frequently go to rock concerts and festivals and the typical black T-shirt wearing security people imply that their primary job is to protect the artists against the menacing fans.”

But at this concert, the “safety” officers were making it clear that they were “here to help you enjoy yourself.”  Plus, they wore friendly orange instead of ominous black. As a result, the blogger saw many people asking the safety guys questions, “which is rare at the many hundreds of shows I’ve seen with the typical security guards.”

Just by changing one word (and a color), the partying crowd felt less threatened and more comfortable with the officers who were there to protect, not intimidate.  Big difference.

The challenge for writers is to choose words or descriptions that provide a new insight or deeper understanding – and not just a euphemism, which is designed to soften or obfuscate meaning. No one drives a “used” car anymore; the car industry thinks “pre-owned” sounds more inviting.  The military doesn’t accidentally kill anyone; troops generate “collateral damage.”  Is anyone really fooled?

Even in our social attitudes, we often choose to sanitize.  For example,  “sleeping together” vs., well, you know; “not unattractive” (a double negative) vs. “good looking but not gorgeous”; or “escort” vs. “prostitute.”  Then, of course, there’s “restroom” where no one is doing any resting.  And don’t get me started on political language.

This is why the use of safety officers instead of security guards at the festival is so significant.  The meaning is different, and people responded differently. It shows us that the right word – not a mushy synonym – can change behavior.

The key is to know exactly whom you’re talking to – your audience.  At a rock festival, where mostly young people want to have fun and let loose, the decision to go with “safety officers” suggested that the concert managers understood their “customers” perfectly.

Even the “VIP” area at the festival had a new name  – VGP or Very Good Person.  That’s because this particular hospitality venue, usually provided exclusively for high rollers with deep pockets, was available only for folks who raised money for the children’s charity that festival profits were supporting.  If you raised $500 or more, you were deemed a “ very good person.” And rightly so.

It’s a pretty civilized approach and a very thoughtful choice of words. And it goes to show you  – whether you’re catering to a bunch of kids partying at a concert or prosecco-sipping bankers looking for the next big deal – words matter.

3 comments on “Change a Word. Change the Mood.

  1. Laurie Cooperman Rosen on

    So true, Don! I’m proud to be on the board of the Business Improvement District (Oakland CA–Uptown District). The people hired to patrol the streets and deter crime and assist folks as needed are also called “Safety Ambassadors”. They also wear bright colors (different for the different neighboring districts), do not carry guns, and are incredibly helpful….not only will they respond to calls just to escort folks to their cars if they need assistance or just want to feel safe, they really get to know the people on the street and, just through the exchange of information rather than force, work with the police force in solving countless cases and getting those folks off the street that are committing crimes (another similarly clad group is charged with street improvements–hanging plants, banners, landscaping, tree maintenance & graffiti removal in the districts).
    It has really helped our city to blossom over the past few years and the nuance that you mention has really made a huge difference.

    • The press has apparently taken your advice cuz. Eg. “Low Information Voter” instead of ignoramus or just plain stupid.

  2. Catherine Ann Stone on

    Don, you are one of the great intellectuals of our time. Welcome to the tiny club!

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