Nobody likes a liar, but some lies carry more hurt than others. When your boss says definitely no layoffs and you get canned the next week, just when you were planning a nice vacation, the news can be, shall we say, disappointing. When your good friend says your haircut looks great, and you know otherwise, well, no harm, no foul. Just a little sugar-coating to get you through the day.
The same is true in the world of public affairs. Some lies are better than others.
The Corn Refiners Association recently petitioned the Food & Drug Administration to change the name of “high-fructose corn syrup” to “corn sugar,” arguing that it’s the only way to clear up consumer confusion about the product.
This kind of name change, while not common, has been allowed before. What used to be known as low erucic acid rapeseed oil is now canola oil. And prunes are now called dried plums. Much nicer, right?
But there’s a problem if the name change is more cover-up than clarification. The public perception of high-fructose corn syrup is considered by many to be unhealthful, so many food companies stopped using it in their products. Experts, however, tend to agree with the trade association, saying that high-fructose corn syrup is basically a sugar, like other forms – and all sugars should be consumed in moderation. They seem to have no problem with the change. So, a little PR massaging is no biggie.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Remember “enhanced interrogation techniques”? Torture. Whatever your political views, the words “enhanced interrogation techniques” are inaccurate and purposely designed to mislead. For one thing, the term has little to do with interrogation; it’s all about physical coercion.
As with most euphemisms, people begin to see through the charade. The truth finds its way to the light.
This is also true for corporations, non-profit organizations and government agencies. Is anyone really fooled with terms like “workforce imbalance correction,” “constructive discharge,” or my favorite, “career alternative enhancement”?
Organizations must face economic realities, and sometimes that means cutting jobs. And we also know what these terms really mean: you’re fired. (Even the term lay-off is a euphemism.)
We humans have a natural tendency to soften our words in order to soften the blow, and there’s something noble in this desire. I guess I’d rather “pass away” than die. But we still know the truth. A “pre-owned vehicle” is still a used car.
The danger of using euphemisms for hard truths in the public arena is that you’ll eventually lose credibility and the trust of the people you’re trying to persuade. The audience rightfully feels that you think they’re stupid.
Long Story Short
Be as plain with your words as possible and explain difficulties, don’t avoid them. Because the truth finds its way to the light.
Maybe that haircut isn’t so bad after all.