There are many reasons people choose to not get directly to the point: tact, fear, the desire to make things sound better than they are, the desire to hide what is really being said. However, when you choose to communicate that way, start handing out the compasses, because your audience is just going to get lost.
Tact, or diplomacy, is a good reason to be cautious of your word choice. It is not, however, a good reason to avoid saying what needs to be said. “Your hat is hideous,” is not appropriate. “I worry that your hat’s ornamentation will be distracting to the audience,” is a better way to suggest that maybe the hat is not appropriate. Or, “I’m sorry, I’m allergic to the feathers in your hat, I cannot go out with you if you will be wearing it,” is a stronger, yet not insulting, way to suggest the hat cannot go out in public. And if the only problem with the hat is that the color is one you find vile, you may just need to hold your tongue to maintain the relationship.
If you are afraid of the topic, or how your audience will receive it, your approach will depend on the reason for your fear.
- If it’s a “don’t shoot the messenger” situation, then start with that.
- If it is your first time teaching sex-education, then … well, why are you teaching sex-ed if you’re afraid of it? Rip off the bandage and be done with it.
- Sensitive topics, such as sex, are really best with a “just the facts” mentality to avoid any and all confusion.
- For all other causes of fear (that I can think of), I find being direct and humble works the best for me. “Here’s what happened. I’m sorry it happened. I will do everything in my power to prevent it from happening again.” Avoid pointing the finger at someone else – unless that’s the problem. In which case, express your concerns regarding the other person in terms of your direct experience. And definitely, do that in writing as a way to protect yourself.
Euphemisms are tricks of language to make something sound less bad. War is a great source of euphemisms. Two key examples: friendly fire (getting killed by an ally) and collateral damage (killing people or destroying property that were inconveniently between you and your target). And, it is difficult to come up with alternatives to the war examples and keep the conversation polite. Then again, war is not a topic of polite conversation. If you feel you need the euphemism, then maybe it’s time to change the topic.
The euphemism that used to really bother me is “passed away” instead of “died.” My opinion: say what happened! Then my mom died. I still have a hard time saying it. I’ve decided that making the loss of someone so dear feel less horrible is an OK thing.
Here’s one I learned recently that is more about deception than being polite: sunshine units. That’s a term for a power plant that’s leaking radiation. Leaking radiation is bad, there is no way to put a happy face on it. While I can understand the desire to smooth some edges, the only reason to be deceptive is because you’re the one doing something bad. That’s fear. Swallow your pride and own up to the situation.
Then there is the desire to make people think you are saying one thing when you are saying another. This is also a deception! Those are bad! You hate it when it’s done to you, so why do it to others?
I never learned subtlety. When I try it, people tend to get confused. I tend to get confused when people use it on me. Maybe that’s part of why I’m so passionate about clear communication. If you are going to say or write something, say or write it! Be considerate of your words as well as the truth.