Citizenry, Inc.: The Ambiguous, Euphemistic Language of Corporate America and its Impact on Democracy

Jesse Hamilton I Society & Culture I Analysis I September 6th, 2017

Ambiguous, euphemistic language is common in corporate, bureaucratic environments and is used for a variety of rational reasons. This type of language may lead to ignorance among those who use it and those who consume it. As it becomes more prevalent in American society, ambiguous, euphemistic language is leading to a state where the lines between knowledge and ignorance are blurred. This paper explores how ambiguous, euphemistic language: 1) is used in corporate, bureaucratic settings and why it is accepted; 2) could be a cause of ignorance among those who create and consume it; and 3) has implications for the acquisition and transfer of knowledge in broader society.

Ignorance is often thought of as a barrier to the consolidation of power, so it would stand to reason that organizations, especially those with profit motives, are incentivized to avoid ignorance and pursue knowledge. However, as Linsey McCoy explains, "Ignorance serves as a productive asset, helping individuals and institutions to command resources, deny liability in the aftermath of crises, and to assert expertise in the face of unpredictable outcomes" (McGoey, 553).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, as the United States shifted from an agrarian society to an industrialized society, Americans have not only become more exposed to business culture and its language, but have also become dependent on it for their livelihood. Additionally, individuals are directly and indirectly exposed to the sort of ambiguous, euphemistic language commonly used in business settings in a variety of ways - at work, within social circles, through advertising, from public statements issued from business leaders to media organizations, and from public relations teams. Finally, as business leaders begin to assume more prominent roles in public office within federal, state, and local governments, the ambiguous, euphemistic language which comes naturally to them has begun to change the way elected and appointed officials communicate with the public. Put simply, the language of corporations seems to have permeated broader society, and this has implications for knowledge and ignorance in American society.

What is ambiguous, euphemistic language?

The language of business which will be addressed in this paper consists of two distinct parts which can be used independently or in combination: ambiguity and euphemisms. Ambiguous language is a powerful tool in business because it has the advantage of being interpreted in different ways, by different individuals/groups, at different times, both in the present and in the future. As Jackall notes, "The indirect and ambiguous linguistic frameworks that managers employ in public situations typify the symbolic complexity of the corporation" and serves as "a tentative way of communicating that reflects the peculiarly chancy and fluid character of their world." Basically, managers have learned that the best way to deal with the volatile nature of business, which is mainly driven by exogenous economic factors, is to communicate with ambiguity.

Euphemisms - "the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant" - are used as well, for reasons that will be discussed in-depth in Section IV.

Why is ambiguity used?

Ambiguity is a powerful tool that is used to manage and/or avoid different types of risks inherent with a career at large, American corporations, and family businesses (Carmon, 87). All of the risks discussed in this section are related to uncertainty about the future. How ambiguity is used in corporate settings is important as it has implications for how it can be successfully applied in other American institutions; for example, in government and politics.

Avoidance of decision making

The future is uncertain, therefore managers are inclined to hedge their statements and actions against unforeseen events and outcomes. The simplest way to achieve this is through the use of ambiguous language and avoidance of making decisions. A manager interviewed by Jackall describes the avoidance of decision making: "The basic principles of decision making in this organization and probably any organization are: (1) avoid making any decision if at all possible; (2) if a decision has to be made, involve as many people as you can so that, if things go south, you're able to point in as many directions as possible" (Jackall). Given that the goals of a business are often very ambiguous and amorphous, by not committing to specific details, managers can pass responsibility (and therefore accountability) to subordinates, so that if goals are not achieved or laws are broken, managers reduce the risk that they themselves will be held accountable by their superiors and/or courts.

Organizational Contingency

Power within the hierarchy of a corporation is volatile, with managers regularly falling in and out of favor. As Jackall notes, "First of all, at the psychological level, managers have an acute sense of organizational contingency. Because of the interlocking ties between people, they know that a shake-up at or near the top of a hierarchy can trigger a widespread upheaval, bringing in its wake startling reversals of fortune, good and bad, throughout the structure" (Jackall). Therefore, it is rational for those who aspire to move up in the ranks to create allies and avoid creating enemies. After all, one never knows who will be handed a position of authority next. One way to achieve this is through providing ambiguous feedback (perhaps laced with euphemisms to soften the message) to superiors, peers, and subordinates alike. When feedback is provided in this way, the interpretation is left to the receiver, a strategy which will be discussed again in Section VII.

Finally, it should be noted that in an age where everything is filmed or recorded, and where bits can be combined and commingled (Negroponte, 18), ambiguity is an important defense against being undeniably connected to concrete statements and/or positions.

Why are euphemisms used?

Jackall notes that "managers' public language is, more than anything else, euphemistic" however "for the most part, euphemistic language is not used with the intent to deceive. Managers past a certain point, as suggested earlier, are assumed to be "maze-bright" and able to "read between the lines" of a conversation or a memorandum and to distinguish accurately suggestions from directives, inquiries from investigations, and bluffs from threats" (Jackall). Additionally, Jackall points out that euphemistic language is used internally for purposes of deniability and externally when dealing with the public.

An example from business

In 2006, Jeff Skilling was convicted on federal felony charges for his involvement in the collapse of Enron Corporation, where he served as CEO during the time in which fraudulent activity occurred. As documented by the New York Times, during the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearings in 2002, when questioned by Representative James Greenwood as to whether or not he was aware of any wrongdoing at the company during his time as CEO, Skilling stated:

"I do not believe -- I did not do anything that was not in the interest, in all of the time I worked for Enron Corporation, that wasn't in the interest of the shareholders of the company."

Skilling's response offers nothing more than his belief, thus positioning himself to plausibly deny any future evidence of wrongdoing. Interestingly, due to the clever wording, his statement might actually be true. During the time Skilling was CEO, Enron used deceptive accounting (among other fraudulent practices) to artificially inflate their earnings. During the time of the fraud, Enron's stock skyrocketed, often outperforming the broad market by a wide margin. This is, of course, good for the current shareholders in the short-term. However, it was not in the best interest of Enron's long-term shareholders, employees, and lenders, as the company declared bankruptcy in 2001. In short, Skilling's statement is disingenuous at best, but serves as an example of the malleability of ambiguously-worded statement.

When are individuals exposed to ambiguous, euphemistic language?

Individuals are exposed to ambiguous, euphemistic language in a few ways: internally through company communications, and externally through statements to the public.

Internal business communications

Internal company communications are often rife with ambiguity and euphemisms. In this capacity, the language can serve different purposes. For example, it is used to rally employees around core missions, especially if the mission is under public attack. Also, cleverly worded communications can be used to soften harsh messages/actions that employees might not find appealing. For example, instead of stating "we plan on firing people because we need to increase our profits," a typical communication may describe "a strategic, systematic restructuring and reallocation of resources to address ongoing shareholder interests at this point in the business cycle." Employees are more likely to be accepting of, or indifferent to, the latter; whereas the former would likely cause discomfort, anxiety, and anger.

External business communications

Public relations teams play a large role in the conveyance of messages to the public. Jackall sums up the subtleties of public relations best:

"…the essential task of public relations…is to transform expediency into altruism or even statesmanship. Second, the genius of public relations…consists to a great extent in its dexterity at inverting symbols and images. Whether it is hyping products, influencing legislation, transforming reputations, or erasing stigma, public relations tries to transform actually or potentially perceived weaknesses into strengths and subvert or at least call into question the strengths or particularly the credibility of opponents."

It should be noted that public relations tactics and strategies are not strictly confined to businesses - they can be applied to communications from government, academic institutions, and scientific research organizations when those institutions desire to transform weakness into strength and negativity into positivity.

What are the broad, societal implications associated with the increasing use of ambiguous language?

Individuals' exposure to ambiguous, euphemistic language has implications for how they think, speak, and interpret reality.

The effect of ambiguous language on how individuals think

The language we use shapes the way we think. According to Lera Boroditsky, "Language can be a powerful tool for shaping abstract thought. When sensory information is scarce or inconclusive, languages may play the most important role in shaping how their speakers think" (Boroditsky, 1). This may have important implications as we continue to be exposed to ambiguous, euphemistic language because we may begin viewing the world as a place with less certainty, where the lines of knowledge and ignorance are naturally blurred.

The effect of ambiguous language on ontological security, lay theories, and ignorant othering

To understand how ambiguous language affects broader society, it is important to understand how individuals establish a sense of what is real and true. Giddens' concept of ontological security is described as "a sense of continuity and order in events, including those not directly within the perceptual environment of the individual" (Giddens, 243). Ostertag builds on this further with the development of two other concepts: lay theories and ignorant othering (Ostertag, 828). Lay theories "serve as vital tools in developing social realities" and "allow people to ground and justify a sense of reality that they can trust as correct and true" (Ostertag, 828). When ambiguous language is used, knowledge may not be communicated with the same degree of fidelity as when clear, concise language is used. Therefore, the ambiguity is removed at the level of the receiver, as opposed to being removed at the level of the communicator. In this way, ambiguous statements have the potential to become personalized in the same way that advertising has become personalized (Baudrillard). By increasing the scope of what can be true, ambiguous language potentially increases the number different senses of reality, or lay theories, that exist in a given population. A wider variety of lay theories may, in turn, exacerbate the phenomena of ignorant othering, which Ostertag describes as when "people construct an image of the 'average' American whom they claim is often less informed of the news, less aware of the problems of the news, and therefore less aware of and knowledgeable about the world than they themselves are" (Ostertag, 828).

The effect of ambiguous language on conspiracy theories

Using the same rationale described above, ambiguous language may also be used to support and increase belief in conspiracy theories because it is malleable enough to fit into the conspiracy narrative. This might strengthen current and future conspiracy theories by making them more persuasive. Kay states that "the only characteristic that strongly correlates with belief in any conspiracy theory is a belief in other conspiracy theories" (Kay, 150). If individual conspiracy theories are made more persuasive by ambiguous language and thereby increase the number of individuals who believe any one conspiracy theory, this might lead to a cascading effect where belief in conspiracy theories becomes more prevalent. In order to support this hypothesis, more research is needed on why belief in any conspiracy is correlated to belief in others.

The effect of ambiguous language on fake news and alternative facts

Given the similarities between conspiracy theories and fake news, individuals who are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories may also be more prone to believe fake news. This may make fake news more influential. Also, individuals may be more prone to accept "alternative facts," not just due to the clever euphemism, but because they're more inclined to believe in conspiracy. More research is needed to understand the relationship between belief in any one conspiracy theory, piece of fake news, and "alternative fact" and belief in others.

Examples of ambiguous language in politics

Donald Trump

Donald Trump, a businessman turned politician, is a unique case study. Consider Trump's statement about his opponents' position on gun control:

"Hillary wants to abolish - essentially abolish - the Second Amendment. If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know."

Trump's ambiguous, and seemingly persuasive, language here is based in a false premise that Hillary Clinton would (1) have the power to abolish the Second Amendment, and (2) want to abolish the Second Amendment. Both are equally absurd on their own merit, with the latter relying on the reactionary conflation of gun-control laws with some mythological government confiscation of over 300 million guns. There are two different ways to interpret the purpose of Trump's statement. Proponents of the Second Amendment will either use votes or violence (which are wildly different mechanisms for change) to prevent his political opponent from taking away their gun rights. In this case, since the ambiguity of the statement is removed in the mind of the listener, there are two (or more) versions of reality.

According to NPR, Trump's use of ambiguous language follows a predictable pattern. He makes an ambiguous statement which is subsequently criticized by opponents, incessantly covered by the media. Trump then claims to be a victim of the "liberal media" claiming that his words were taken out of context (McCammon). The foundation of his strategy is ambiguity.

Hillary Clinton

During a 2016 Democratic Primary debate, Hillary Clinton and her opponent, Bernie Sanders were each asked by the moderator if they support fracking. Clinton's response displayed ambiguity and "talking in circles" when she stated:

"By the time we get through all my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place."

Although not as egregious as Trump, Clinton's choice of wording and syntax indicate a propensity for unnecessarily complex language, something her opponent was quick to point out. Sanders stated, "My answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking."

Recent examples of euphemisms in American politics

Just as in business, euphemisms also prove useful in the realm of politics. For example, the Trump administration regularly uses euphemisms to downplay the negativity associated with its policies and/or past statements. The euphemisms "extreme vetting" and "locker room talk" provide useful examples. Many Americans can accept a policy of "extreme vetting," but some would be hesitant to accept it if it were stated for what it truly is - racial and religious discrimination. Additionally, some citizens might not be dissuaded from voting for a presidential candidate that uses "locker room talk," but might draw the line over a candidate who "[grabs women] by the pussy."

A cautionary warning from George Orwell

Given that individuals are becoming desensitized to ambiguous, euphemistic language, there is a greater likelihood that politicians can successfully employ Orwellian doublespeak, or "language used to deceive usually through concealment or misrepresentation of truth." In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell describes how politics may inevitably reach a point where it must serve this very purpose of shielding citizens from ugly truths by avoiding any clear "defense of the indefensible:"

"…political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them."

Political statements, like those used as examples by Orwell, are unnecessarily wordy, confusing, take time and effort to interpret, and do not overtly communicate the harsh nature of the message. While this paper is not proposing the inevitability of a totalitarian state due to corporate America's language and culture, it suggests that a population that has been desensitized to ambiguity may be more susceptible to being influenced by disingenuous language.


The use of ambiguous, euphemistic language, stemming from practical use within American corporations, may have implications for knowledge and ignorance in broader society. Most notably, ambiguous language is interpretable at the personal level, which may result in numerous individuals having personalized versions of reality. These versions of reality may be incompatible, leading to a state where no one knows what is really true.

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