Euphemisms and jargon are enemies of effective school leadership

I wrote about Boeing’s use of the term “quality escape” in another article describing the manufacturing fault that resulted in a section of the side of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX blowing away from the plane while in flight.  It is fair to say that using the term “quality escape” was an attempt to reduce the scale of the manufacturing fault in the minds of the general public.

Politicians seem to love euphemisms.  Ever since Winston Churchill re-labelled “lies” as “terminological inexactitudes” in 1906 and “freedom fighters” became confused with “terrorists” depending upon who was making the speech, politicians have used euphemisms with exuberance.   The economy isn’t in recession, it is undergoing a necessary restructure or a period of disinflation.  We didn’t destroy heritage wetlands, we re-classified them as scrublands before bulldozing them.

I love Bernard Woolley’s euphemistic quip in the brilliant British political satire ‘Yes Minister’ when he responded to news that his line manager may have breached security in a conversation with a newspaper reporter.  His response was: “Oh, that’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?  I give confidential security briefings.  You leak.  He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act”.  

In the corporate world, euphemisms are often seen as helpful when trying to manage a crisis.  Desperate managers hope they might soften the impact of bad news or deflect blame away from themselves.

This hope is not entirely without foundation as euphemisms are widely used in everyday language, not just in crises.  Thus, we speak of the ‘rest room’ instead of the ‘toilet’, ‘landscape management’ instead of ‘clear felling’ of a forest, ‘passing away’ instead of ‘dying’ and ‘pleasantly plump’ or ‘shapely’ instead of ‘fat’.

Military forces have used euphemisms for decades.  They talk about “neutralising” an enemy when they mean “killing”.  They refer to “friendly fire” when they have accidentally killed their own troops, “servicing a target” when they drop bombs on it, “strategic redeployment” when they mean “retreat”, and “inoperative combat personnel” when they mean “dead soldiers”.

In the corporate world, we hear of “personnel changes” rather than layoffs or job cuts, “rightsizing” rather than downsizing the workforce, “revenue enhancements” rather than price increases, “ethical lapses” rather than fraud or corruption, and “enhancements” when retail products are reduced in size or benefits removed.

An imaginary humorous conversation highlighting the ambiguities that jargon can cause.

When euphemisms obscure clarity of meaning, they descend into jargon – words or expressions that are difficult for others to understand.  Many Australians will remember a former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who was a master of jargon, referring to “detailed programmatic specificity” in a speech to a visiting German delegation headed by their Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  The context was a declaration that “it is unlikely any progress will emerge from the Major Economies Forum (MEF) by way of detailed programmatic specificity”. Unsurprisingly, the German press never managed to translate that phrase, and no native English speakers found they were able to offer meaningful assistance.

It seems that the use of jargon is expanding in society.  Recent examples I have come across include:

“As we prepare for the next major bull cycle, it has become clear that we need to focus on talent density across the organisation to ensure we remain nimble and dynamic” (Binance Australia) really means “we are about to fire some of our staff”.

“Humaneering is an emerging applied science with the goal of maximising the actualisation and achievement of individuals, groups, organisations, institutions and other complex systems dependent on human effectiveness” (Institute of Management Services) means something like “people are important”.

“We will increase our talent velocity” (McKinsey) means “we will train our staff in new skills”.

“Our tax technology automation solutions enable organisations to increase efficiencies and de-risk manual processes, thereby freeing up group tax and finance functions to focus on value accretive tasks rather than repetitive processes” (PwC) probably means “our tools will free up time for other tasks, or for reducing staff numbers”.

“I have the utmost confidence in our processes and our systems to not let any of the consultants enter any problematic intersection of those contracts or those arrangements interfering with or having that problematic intersection with a criminal investigation” (Australian Federal Police) means something like “the consultants won’t be getting any information from us”.

It may sound self-evident, trite and even tautological, but the point of communication is (wait for it) – to communicate.  Schools need to communicate simply and clearly so that their students and their community grasp the message that is being conveyed.  Therefore, it follows that no school would ever use jargon such as this.  Or would it?

Unfortunately, much of the professional language that is legitimately used in schools every day may unintentionally come across to some (or many) parents as unintelligible jargon.  Terms that many parents struggle to understand include formative assessment, metalanguage, flipping the classroom, differentiated instruction, norm-referenced assessment, rubric, explicit instruction, phonics, STEAM, Essential Learning Standards, scaffolding, closed questions, Socratic seminars, ATAR scores, and many more.  It is quite appropriate that educators use such terms in their professional conversations, but they should never assume that such terminology will be understood by non-professionals without substantial explanation.

I would love to say that in contrast with jargon, schools don’t engage in euphemisms.  However, that isn’t true either.

Several decades ago, teachers’ comments on students’ reports were often brutally honest.  These days in most countries, teachers’ comments are invariably positive and encouraging, even when students’ performances are unsatisfactory (a word that is almost never used on students’ reports).  Rather than writing “below expectations”, teachers are more likely to write “needs improvement” or “developing skills”.  Rather than writing “needs to pay attention in class” or “misbehaves and doesn’t accept correction”, reports are more likely to show “has some focus challenges” or “highly sociable”.  “Constantly late submitting homework” is more likely to be described with “works at his own pace”.

I remember a real situation in a school where was I working when one student’s end-of-term report had a string of teachers’ comments that read “very quiet in class”, “needs to contribute more during class discussions”, and “if all my students were like him my job would be a dream”.  The student had left the school at the end of the previous term but all his teachers had felt the need to write something positive, even for a student they were no longer teaching!

While euphemisms (and to a lesser extent jargon) are often used with the intention of softening language or presenting information in a more positive light, they can have harmful consequences when used in schools:

In summary, while euphemisms may be employed to navigate sensitive topics, their overuse or misuse in schools and businesses can impede effective communication, damage trust, and hinder the resolution of challenges. Clear and transparent communication is generally more conducive to a positive and constructive environment.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

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