Up Front Communication

Helping people and businesses through the art of communication

The Joy of Euphemisms

Layered meaning makes conversation so much more interesting.  While plain-speak is generally the best way to conduct most business – after all, one’s goal should never be to stymie your clients or colleagues – there are opportunities where you can have some fun in a conversation and imply the Things that Cannot Be Said Aloud.  Euphemisms and layered meaning enables you to say impolite things in a manner acceptable to polite company.  It reminds me of the snide jabs exchanged across society dinners you read about in Jane Austen’s books.

The beauty of euphemisms is that they are remarkably adaptable to your needs.  You can dial the clarity, drama, or comedy up or down as needed.  Furthermore, the fact that euphemisms require interpretation means that you can give veiled opinions and allow the other person to make of it what they will.  When you can’t call someone an “unbelievable douchebag,”  you can say they are “determined and honest.”  Someone who feels the same way as you about said douchebag will understand exactly what you are getting at.  Someone who for some unfathomable reason likes that douchebag will probably acknowledge your comment as a fair observation on that person’s personality.


Coming up with good euphemisms requires a good vocabulary, a good sense of timing, and solid control and deployment of appropriate facial expression.  Delivering a euphemism with a deadpan voice and expression can result in a very different implication from one delivered in falsetto with a clenched tooth smile.    Because it can be easy to slip from a well-delivered euphemism to outright sarcasm and nastiness, understanding the mood of your audience or conversant and whether or not it is a good time to use this conversational tool is paramount.  I usually keep heavy euphemism use to situations that are relatively casual or light in tone.  I’ve also deployed them specifically to break tension and acknowledge elephants in the room without actually putting a neon sign over said elephant.  Attempting this in circumstances that require absolute plain speak and clarity would not be appropriate, nor would it be suitable in extremely serious situations.

If you want to improve your use and timing of euphemisms, I strongly recommend paying attention to classic stories of manners such as those by Jane Austen, checking out Oscar Wilde’s work, and watching lots of skilled comedians (I particularly like Rick Mercer, Jon Stewart, and Ricky Gervais).  Practice your vocabulary-fu by taking straightforward statements and changing the words around so you express the same thing in a completely different manner.  Then, practice doing so with different vocal intonations and facial expressions – preferably in front of a mirror.  Like anything else, you will improve with practice.

Have fun with euphemisms.  They are remarkably fun communicative devices!

Death by email

The Unclutterer had an excellent post a few days ago regarding uncluttered email communication.

It’s funny how a system that supposedly increases productivity and streamlines communication needs strategies for dealing with communication pile-ups.  Heavens knows I’ve fallen prey to email clutter; my inboxes are horrid messes filled with emails that will never be read more than once, messages that I still haven’t replied, ancient discussion threads, and other sins of electronic communication.

Erin (The Unclutterer) highlights some of the most important points I relate to my own clients regarding effective email communication.  Her article goes into detail, but I will provide my own summary here.

Of the utmost importance is determining whether or not email is the appropriate medium at all.  Very often a huge amount of time gets wasted sending emails back and forth when that same issue could have been resolved with a five minute phone call.  Picking up the phone does cause some people anxiety – I’ve written about my own phone anxiety before – but for heaven’s sake, pretend you have a spine and just pick up the phone.  It isn’t as scary as you think it is, and will save you time, effort, and stress in the long run.

Next, understand exactly what it is you are email about.  Pick one or two specific issues and stick to those topics.  If you aren’t certain what it is you are addressing, it might be better to pick up the phone.  Maybe you need to sound off on a few different ideas.  That’s a perfectly acceptable reason to contact someone, but that process is usually better when done in real time.

Third, keep your email concise and to the point.  Unless you are writing a social letter to your friend, don’t use it as an opportunity to chat. When dealing with business, attention and time are valuable commodities, so don’t waste either with pointless pleasantries   Be polite, and then show respect to your reader by addressing the issue without needless embellishment or tangents.

Finally, write an adequately descriptive subject line.  It is with staggering frequency that I see business emails with no subject line, with banal and unrelated subjects, or even with subject lines that were rendered obsolete several exchanges ago.  Your reader should know precisely what it is they will be reading about with a quick glance at the subject line prior to clicking on the email.  That way they can plan how they are going to go through their email list and get their head into the correct context before even opening the message.  This makes a huge difference in sparing time and energy in our daily communications.

Apologies to Erin for ripping off the subject of her excellent blog post, but the content was so similar to what I cover with my clients that I couldn’t resist bringing it up here again.  If you haven’t yet seen the Unclutterer blog, check it out.  She has lots of excellent insight into organization that can create a very real difference in both your home and business life.

Interaction hang-ups

During a presentation I was delivering last week, one of the attendees asked what to do about communication methods that we dislike.  Specifically, he was wondering about how to handle modes of transmission that make us uncomfortable – things like email, texting, telephone, and the like.

The multiplicity of communication methods we have available at the moment make it seem like we can cherry-pick which style of contact we choose to use.  In reality, this is pretty lousy business practice.  Different methods have different strengths and weaknesses, and regardless whether they are intuitive for us on an individual basis, we need to learn to make use of them all.

Understanding why a certain method doesn’t work for you is extremely useful; it’s worth taking the time to figure out what aspects of that mode make you uncomfortable.  Once you know why, let’s say, email gives you the heebie jeebies, you can start to find ways to mitigate that problem.  Telephones have been my personal bugbear for some time.  Like most teens, I spent an aggravating amount of time glued to one.  Once email became the de rigeur mode of communication among my peers, however, I started to hate the phone with a passion.  Ringing telephones would send my heart rate through the roof, and by the time I was out of university and in the workforce, I’d do just about anything to avoid a phone conversation.

Eventually I figured out that the main reason for this aversion was the fact that I can’t see the body language of the person on the other end.  This drove me batty.  I rely quite heavily on that kind of info, and when it was stripped from real-time conversation, I became anxious.  Email gave me time to ruminate over the message and its nuances and craft a more thoughtful response.  Phones demanded that I give a response on the spot without having a pretty big chunk of info about the mental state of the person I was conversing with.  This was not a problem when I was a teen – I spent so much time on the phone that listening for vocal cues instead of physical cues was easy.  I had simply forgotten how to do it.

Once I figured out why I disliked phone conversations, I could focus on the benefits.  One five minute phone call could resolve something that would take hours over email.  Phone conversations were more intimate and friendly.  They improved relationships; clients often expressed considerable pleasure at having me call and talk to them than simply corresponding via email.  In order to get over my discomfort with not being able to see the other person, I now focus on nuances my conversant’s voice.  I make a concerted effort to call people instead of emailing them or sending them messages via FaceBook.  Phone calls are slowly growing on me again.

If you dislike email, what is it about the email that puts you off?  If it’s the technology or interface that trips you up, spend some time learning how to use it more effectively.  If you feel that you never know what tone the other person is using, try reading the emails out loud a few times with different expressions to hear how it might sound out loud.  Is texting bothering you but your clients insist on it?  Treat it like a pager – if your client sends you several messages, use it as a cue that they want you to call them.  Figure out what you need to learn or do to make using the technology easier, and then focus on the benefits to make it a pleasure instead of a pain.