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Euphemism: Smart Talk

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Language is about playing with words where we have to deal with layers of meanings. Many times we say something but don’t mean it and at times we communicate a lot by blurting minimum words, diplomatic phrases or even silence. Brutal facts, and, awkwardness of situations and relationships push us to be indirect and polite in our conversation. Still, mostly we are successful in saying what we intend to due to the pragmatics. So, the best part is that euphemism lessens the intensity of painful situations and facts.

As a boss, we all feel upset or guilty when we have to fire a good and experienced employee for our financial reasons. Similarly, we never find ourselves daring enough to inform someone about the fatal disease or death of one’s loved one? On such occasions, we might think of very indirect and kindest words beforehand to save our listeners from all the hurt, annoyance and embarrassment. Many of us, even rehearse the euphemistic speech in mind before confront the situation. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t want to be blamed of the harsh reality; we try to deal with the inevitable without risking our repute among the people around. Therefore, we avoid the direct and blunt words that disappoint shock, insult or exasperate our listeners. In fact, it’s about building, maintaining and flourishing our all three kinds of relationships: personal, social and professional.


Saying No to one’s requests, suggestions, support, excuses and explanation is another challenge. That’s so because we care for our dear ones and our personal relationships. Sometimes, when a friend asks us to join him on the tea party and we are unable to do so, what else can we say except:

“I wish I could, but you know I will have to leave now. Would you mind if we plan a get together some other time?”

Similarly, we have to decline the requests of our dear ones. But to justify ourselves and being euphemistic we propose an attractive offer so that we abandon ourselves by fulfilling the original one; we offer more than what is requested on our own terms. A father-children conversation may be interesting:
Children: “Dad, tonight we want to dine out. Please, take us to Pizza Hut.” Father: “(Who came tired from the office, is declining the request) What if we go out on the week end rather than tonight, because that day we will have more time to spend together, and, we can go for bowling as well.”
Children: “(Accepting the plan happily) Bowling as well??…Oh Yes!!!”
So, the bargaining strategy was a euphemistic way of declining the children’s request without even hurting them.

Silence is another smart way of saying No. We practice it in our everyday Facebook conversation:
X: (On Facebook) sends a friend request.
Y: Just ignores by not replying.                                             
X: Sends a friend request on Facebook again.
Y: Just stays quiet and does not reply

Sometimes, deliberately and usually humorously, we give a totally irrelevant reply to a question. The aim is distracting the conversation, obviously, in order to avoid the answer or personal opinion on a particular matter in an effort of face saving.
A foreigner Principal: (who is not proficient at the local language, Urdu, asked his old student): What character are you playing at your school’s annual drama?
Old Student: (wants to keep his suspense, says please don’t ask me before it is staged) It’s an Urdu Play. (Showing he might not explain well due to the cultural difference associated with Urdu.)

Foreigner Principal: (getting defensive): In Urdu…Oh yes, I know.

In the same way, sometimes by being a little bit of tactful, we save many hearts from breaking at workplace as well. For example, a preschool teacher knows how to communicate to mothers of her students in a diplomatic way while conveying them their child’s misbehavior or academic weaknesses. A conversation can give us a real picture:

Parents: “I am worried my son doesn’t eat well at school.”

Preschool Teacher: “Yeah, actually he loves readymade (not ‘junk’) food rather than homemade (not ‘health food’) lunch.”

Parent: How about his behaviour?

Teacher: “(smiling) He is a little too naughty (rather than “hyper active and undisciplined).”

Parent: “Does he listen to you?”

Teacher: “(Smiling) Depends upon his mood. You know he is a bit moody (instead of ‘not really’).”
Parent: “And, how about his studies.”
Teacher: “(About the slow learner): Well, I am happy that he is getting interests in all curricular activities. I feel a little bit of improvement in his attention span and studies as well.”

The best thing is, the mother got the entire picture without being hurt or annoyed. That’s how the professional relationship between a teacher and a parent has been prevented from being ruined; in a school business who can afford to lose their parent-clients?

In our daily life, sometimes, we are not in a position to deal with a question directly; we can’t say a clear yes or no. So, we try to cover/protect ourselves through a polite and distracting conversation. All the talk is apparently very reasonable and logical, but in fact, does not reply the asked question directly and clearly. You will be amused by the further conversation between the same teacher and the parent:
Parent (complaining): “Yesterday, my daughter did not bring her homework diary from school?”

Teacher: “(Who is not ready to take the responsibility of the incident, trying to protect herself) Oh really? Let me look into the matter today….. As you know, it’s a preschool and kids are very young. So, sometimes they forget their diaries or notebooks in their desks, or, sometimes, they exchange them by mistake….But I will certainly sort it out.”

Parent: “(Satisfied) OK.”

Thus, the teacher is successful in keeping the trust of the parent.
Phrases like No comments, no more personal questions, and body gestures like shrugging and smiles are also forms of silence which show disagreement.

Also, “You know what I mean?” is another euphemistic phrase where one communicates something without actually saying it, like
Immediate Boss: (Asking his subordinate) What do you think of our new Head (Boss)? I mean, don’t you think that the former one was nicer with his employees?
Subordinate: What can I say, Sir. You know what I mean?
Postponement of a reply, meeting, and request is a euphemistic way to say No; a direct and straightforward No may hurt, annoy or embarrass the listener. In the job market, some phrases are considered as very meaningful:
Principal: “(Refusing a candidate for teaching position) These days, we are taking demos. Once we finalize, we will inform you.”
Sometimes, an organization has to deal with tough employees without losing their faces, so they apply euphemistic strategies. The following conversation explains it.
Principal: “(Wants to get rid of a teacher by transferring her to another school branch) You are far more capable for this position. You deserve a better position at the Senior Branch. So, I am going to promote you and transfer you there.”

Flattery is sometimes taken as a euphemism in the business world and sometimes we experience incidents like this.
A: (A sales girl at a cosmetics store being euphemistic to a middle-aged lady in a flattering manner says) “Ma’am, the ladies who are +25 (years), should go for this night cream.” (The lady got flattered that she looked much younger than her age.)

Here, flattering strategy is used as a motivation for buying of a certain product; in fact, between the lines aim was to sell a certain product without threatening the face of the middle-aged lady. Alongside, it was a way of motivating her to buy the product.

Many times, as an employer or authority, we want to guide others without being direct or rude. Thus, rather than being rude and direct, like, Do this/that, You are expected to/should have do/done this, You don’t match our criteria for a certain thing, you are less proficient than what is required in a certain area, etc., we adopt a positive and polite strategy, Suggestion Strategy, that is not only comforting but also face saving for the speaker and listener both.
Employer: “(Refusing a candidate) Your experience profile and track record is good. However, why don’t you take a while and get some English conversation courses before you apply for the position.”

It means that the employer refused to hire the candidate indicating towards his lack of spoken English skills in a positive and hopeful way.

Similarly, taboos are always hard to discuss in any society, but with an open and exposed media, we have learned how to talk about the forbidden topics in an indirect and polite way which gives us freedom to communicate without any hesitation and with honesty. For that purpose, we replace taboo terms by euphemistic expressions, like we may call after death money matters as life insurance, will, a barber as a hair stylist, a prostitute as a party girl, sex as sleeping together, sex body organs as secret parts, pee for urine, ‘Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome as AIDS, death as God’s call, firing from jobs as downsizing, poor as underprivileged, bribery as donation, etc.

In the educated, civilized and globalized world, face saving of the speaker and listener is given priority in the interest of both the parties as human welfare and relationships are the main concerns. However, we need to be smart enough to read between the lines as the same euphemism can be used for opposite purpose. Simultaneously, we should not let it be used to conceal our individual and collective weaknesses and issues. While dealing with different kinds of situations and people we should keep in mind that euphemism doesn’t work for all settings. Sometimes, it is more effective to be dysphemistic (direct and assertive). So, we have to develop the prudence whether to be euphemistic or not in a given context.

About Kausar Bilal

I am a Trainer for Professional Writing. I conduct Writing workshops for Business Executives, Young Professionals, Academic Writers, College/University Students, Journalists, Advertisers, Corporate Content Writers and Nonfiction Writing Lovers. As a Corporate Writer and Social Change Agent, you may find my voice in diverse areas on this site. Your feedback and comments are most welcomed.

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16 comments

  1. Euphemism has become part and parcel of our day to day conversation but we never consciously realize its use.This article is a great effort to recognize and appreciate sophisticated and tricky use of words. You have done marvelous job, keep it up.

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