Unbuttoning the bad news

This afternoon, I’m going to the funeral of a dear friend. Her death last week was unexpected and everyone’s in shock, but it was hardly a surprise when death is an inevitability of life. Why then do so many people search for euphemisms around the subject: she passed away or passed over, has gone, has left us, is no longer with us?

Euphemisms allow us to package bad news in kind words. They dress a message, providing an extra layer of protection that the listener or reader has to unbutton to reveal meaning. You are more likely to cry out ‘No!’ and to crumple if baldly told someone has died, than if gently informed that they passed over. Euphemisms provide a beat of time that allows both parties to adjust expectations, to compose themselves.

Across all exchanges, the way a message is delivered affects the way it is received.  How many times have you tested different delivery methods when gearing up to refuse a request, make a complaint, write an email, give an excuse, or end a partnership?

Professional writers revise manuscripts dozens of times before submission. Each word will have been tested to ensure the tone is right. The Tricycle Readers group will have great fun looking at the language used in stories and poems. So much is revealed about the people, the place, the problem and the possibilities in each utterance on a page.

It is only as we get towards the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that Elizabeth Bennett recognises Mr Darcy’s problem is not what he says but the way that he says it. He doesn’t do diplomacy. If he’s bored, he says so. If he’s anxious, he becomes brusque. Even in love, his proposal is delivered more as an affront to her sensibilities than a gesture of hope.  The reader, however, sees it all, which is why so many of us have fallen in love with him long before she does!

 

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