My issue with “issue”? No problem. 

Problems. Difficulties. Complications. Obstacles. Disputes. Solid words but not used much anymore. Now everything is an “issue,” and I’m so grateful to Carina Chocano who wrote about this brilliantly in the New York Times Magazine (July 23, 2017).

“Almost any difficulty, conflict or threat will feel less pressing as soon as you’ve reduced it to an ‘issue’ – something vague, debatable and easy to ignore,” she says.

Issue “is a word that acknowledges problems without actually addressing them, that minimizes them in hopes that they’ll just drift away,” Ms. Chocano continues. “It a hedge and a dodge, at once overly punctilious and contemptuously dismissive; it’s contingent, euphemistic, underhanded and easily weaponized.”

Wow. And this is exactly why I have a, well, problem with “issues.” Almost every time I choose to use “problem” in a writing assignment, my clients often get caught up in this cautious linguistic trend and change it to “issue.”

When concrete problems get turned into “airy, abstract, possibly unresolvable ‘issues,” then no one has to own it.

Yes, it’s just a word. But a lot of meaning is bleached out with its use, and that suggests to me a culture too spooked or two wimpy to solve problems or overcome conflicts – too willing to “deal with issues.” See the difference.

As Ms. Chocano says in her poignant article, “Maybe if we stopped being quite so cautious, we could confront reality. Maybe if we cared as much about content as form, we wouldn’t be so vulnerable – so at risk of being harmed by all the threats we’ve assiduously denied even exist.” Another wow.

Our highly polarized political climate is surely a factor in the use of such a ubiquitous euphemism. And so is our business culture. Without firm beliefs, a sense of urgency, and a knowable, objective reality (the truth, not “alternative facts”), it just becomes easier for us to “deal with issues.”

And around and around we go, to our detriment. If we can’t even say we have problems or difficulties, then we’re saying we can’t solve them.

So if you think words don’t matter much, think again. The words we choose reflect who we are, what we think, and how we act or not act. And everyone agrees we’re in trouble. That’s a problem.

  • Ed Newman

    Love the sentence about meaning being “bleached out.” Good stuff here, as always.

  • Once again Don, I totally agree. This is a reflection of non-accountability that our society continues to swerve towards (…toward? …towards? We need your clarification here!). Use of more definitive words places responsibility somewhere. It’s good that you have called attention to this.

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