Monday, December 26, 2011

Euphemistically Yours

Sophisticated people excel in the art of euphemism.

To excel at euphemism you have to know the code.

Those who do not know the code or who consider themselves too intelligent to engage in such frivolity prefer direct, truthful expressions.

By and large, those who excel at euphemism have more and better friends. Those who are frank to the point of rude and vulgar have fewer.

People who think that honesty is the best policy abhor euphemism. They consider it a way to lie with impunity.

When a government talks about “collateral damage” it really means that a stray missile landed in the middle of a wedding ceremony and massacred dozens of innocent civilians.

This practice is not limited to governments. Companies sometimes say that an executive retired to spend more time with his family. The truth is that he was fired for being incompetent.

This does not tell us what euphemism is really about. It does tell us that euphemism is subject to abuse.

Its wrong to use euphemism to deceive. But most euphemisms do not intend to lie. Their true purpose is to preserve decorum, propriety, modesty, and respect.

Those who reject euphemisms end up being vulgar and boorish, poor company in any culture. They offend and disgust others while diminishing themselves.

When you are dining out with friends and euphemistically excuse yourself to go to the rest room, you are not trying to deceive anyone. You are performing a social duty. Were you to describe in detail what you plan to do in the rest room you might cause your dinner companions to lose their appetites.

You do not describe your “business” because you do not perform it in public.

Failing to respect the sensibilities of others is indecorous. Your friends neither need nor want to have a graphic description of your personal hygiene.

I find it difficult to imagine that everyone does not know this.

Using overly explicit language forces people to picture you in an undignified posture.  When they start imagining how you look while doing your business, they are going to lose respect for you. 

Certain activities occur in private. Describing them too explicitly is like performing them in public.

The same applies to frank and open discussions of sexual activities. Admittedly, it’s fashionable in certain segments of polite society to talk about all manner of sexual acts openly and cheerfully.  

And yet, the average individual, and especially the average female, tends to prefer euphemistic terms like “making love” and “intimacy.”

One understands that most women do not find it especially appealing, enticing or erotic to evoke porn-worthy images of what happens between the sheets.

One assumes that women have a good reason for their preference. At the least, they seem to find graphic depictions of sexual acts to be a turn off. For a woman sexuality has a spiritual, even a sacred quality. Reducing it to porn makes it into something that most women consider to be beneath their dignity. Very few people voluntarily perform actions that are beneath their dignity.

Men who desire carnal intimacy with a member of the female gender soon discovers that it is better to respect her sensitivities.

Self-respect begins with a barrier between public and private.

There’s a reason why sex organs are called “private parts.” They have no place on the public square. Your public presentation is your face, not your external genitalia.

In today’s world, this is controversial. Some people defend the practice of talking openly and honestly about organs and orifices. They do not merely assert that it is more honest. They believe that it contributes to your mental health.

We will grant Sigmund Freud full discredit for this aberrant notion. Freud believed that the meaning of life lay in the interplay between organs and orifices. He wanted everyone to be honest enough to call these things by their names and to speak openly and honestly about them.

Freud thought that he was striking a blow for openness and honesty, but he was also striking a blow against courtesy, decorum, respect, and sensitivity for other peoples’ feelings.

Freud assaulted human sensibility and self-respect in the name of mental hygiene. He promised people that if they became more open and honest they would overcome repression and become happier and healthier.

Many people found Freud’s idea to be plausible. Intellectuals who wanted the world to think that they had no psychosexual defects peppered their articles with crude vulgarities.

Of course, it doesn’t really work as Freud expected. When you make explicit reference to organs and orifices you compromise your self-respect and offend everyone around you. In time this will have a negative effect on your social life.

If you don’t believe me, you can try it at home.

The more you act like a pariah, the more people will treat you like one. The more they treat you like one the more you will feel demoralized and depressed. It will not improve your emotional well-being. It will also kill your libido.

Euphemisms are face saving. When Freud counseled people to expose private information, he was telling them that it was good to lose face.

The less face you have the more dysfunctional you will become. 

Euphemisms also lubricate social commerce. We use them to avoid conflict and to maintain a civil rapport. They are essential to the lost art of getting along with other people.

Take a standard American example. In the old days, when young people went out on dates, it sometimes happened that when Jack asked Jill out on a date, Jill would reply that she was too busy, was overwhelmed by work, had made other plans, and so on.

In truth, Jill found Jack to be unattractive, unappealing, or even repulsive. She knew better than to say so. The enemies of euphemism would say that Jill should have told Jack that she would never want to go out with him because she would be horrified to be seen with him in public.

Jill knew better. She did not malign or reject Jack because she did not want to pick a fight. She did not want to get involved in a dramatic confrontation with Jack or any of Jack’s friends.

Had she been open and honest she would have offended Jack. He might then have felt that he needed to restore his honor by retaliating.

Jill did not want to have anything much to do with Jack, so she did her best not to offend him. Had she offended him she would have provoked a dramatic confrontation with him.

She most certainly did not want that.

Let’s say that you are Jack. What should you do if a comely young lady offers a euphemistic rendering of why she does not want to go out with you? Should you challenge her, call her out, or fold your hand?

If you want to be a gentleman and continue to enjoy everyone’s respect, you should fold your hand.

But, what if Jill had told you that she had to stay home and work, but you heard that she was out with her friends?

Again, the gentlemanly thing is to say nothing.

Why would you punish her for being nice to you?

The same rule applies in business situations. Japanese businessmen are well-known for never saying No to an offer. They tend to say that they need to think it over, meaning that they do not want to accept it and do not want to offend you by telling you that you have offered them a bad deal.

The same applies in China. The Economist explains: “Chinese people don’t like being too direct in turning down invitations or (as many journalists find) requests for interviews. So they will frequently reply that something is bu fangbian (not convenient). This does not mean reapply in a few weeks’ time. It means they don’t want to do it, ever.”

In these examples, people who use euphemisms are not really lying. They are not saying that they want to do the interview. They are not saying that they wish they could accept the invitation. They are telling you know that it will not happen. But they do it without putting you in the position where you might lose face.

In China, as in Japan, it’s all about saving face. The same applies to the Anglosphere. The Economist points out that America and Great Britain have perfected the art of euphemism.

More than many others, their cultures are geared to saving face. Good social relations begin with concern for the other person’s face. If you want to be respected you should begin by showing respect for other people.

The Economist seems to be of two minds on euphemism. It writes:  “Euphemism is so ingrained in British speech that foreigners, even those who speak fluent English, may miss the signals contained in such bland remarks as ‘incidentally’ (which means, ‘I am now telling you the purpose of this discussion’); and ‘with the greatest respect’ (‘You are mistaken and silly’). This sort of code allows the speaker to express anger, contempt or outright disagreement without making the emotional investment needed to do so directly. Some find that cowardly.”

Is it really cowardly?

Avoiding conflict when it is not necessary is not cowardly. If you look back over the past decades you will not find that the British, as a people, are cowardly. They have been uncommonly courageous.

And why is it such a bad thing to express disagreement without making a public spectacle of your emotional state. Whatever does the author mean when he talks about an "emotional investment?" For my part, I think that it's better to express anger without any histrionics and without getting all lathered up.

When you throw your emotions into the public arena you are drawing more attention to yourself and less to the object of your anger and contempt.

Making a spectacle of yourself shows that you have no face. When you have no face you have no credibility. When you have no credibility your feelings can only reflect on you. Intemperate emotion always boomerangs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great advice thank you. Wish I could write more but I need to go talk to a man about a dog.