Why Doublespeak is Dangerous

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Despite the term's first appearance in George Orwell's prolific novel 1984 decades ago, the use of “doublespeak” is on the rise in the US.  

Whether it's euphemism, jargon, gobbledygook or inflated language, doublespeak is being used regularly by public affairs agencies, candidates, government agencies and businesses to distance you from the truth.    

William Lutz on CSPAN

In this episode, American linguist William Lutz, co-author of the SEC's Plain English Handbook, author of Doublespeak and 16 other books on writing in clear language and professor emeritus at Rutgers University explains why doublespeak is counterproductive to democracy, why we need to stop being passive consumers of deceptive language and what we can do to fight back.

The Details on Doublespeak

01:28 — “Clear language is essential so that both parties understand what they are agreeing to. In any contract that you enter into, you have to understand what your obligations and rights are under the terms of that contract,” says Mr. Lutz.  

If a company writes a contract in such a way that consumers think they understand what their obligations are but in reality, don't, they may agree to something they don't understand, and ultimately cannot fulfill.  

When marketing companies use anything other than straightforward clear language to describe the terms of an offer, they're not dealing honestly in the marketplace. They are setting up consumers to fail.

02:47 — After a career focused on the use of doublespeak — a term coined by George Orwell in his book 1984, first published in 1949 — Lutz says this practice is on the rise for the very same reason Orwell predicted in his book, which is that “You can get away with a lot of things in language.  

We talk about spin, and it's all right to be a spin doctor. But what are we really saying about a spin doctor?  A spin doctor sits there and says, “Oh no, no, no, you didn't hear what you thought you heard.

Let me tell you what you really heard, and proceed to put a spin on. And the spin turns out to be something entirely different than what was said or what was written or whatever.  

This has now become a profession. If you can get away with things using just words, why not?  And it's become, unfortunately, something of a growth industry,” says Mr. Lutz.

04:12 — Doublespeak poses a threat to the United States because it creates a buffer between what organizations are saying and what people are hearing.  If you're entering into a credit card contract, or buying a home, and you're understanding of your obligation is not based on reality, that's problematic.

The housing bubble was exacerbated by the fact that people thought they understood the mortgages they were getting, only to find out that they were in over their heads.  

In a democracy, we decide what policies and candidates to back by listening to the public discourse.  If the discussion is carried out in doublespeak, organizations deliberately mislead the people so they don't really know what's going on, and we wind up making decisions of social importance on the wrong basis.

05:41 — “Doublespeak is a matter of intent. You can identify doublespeak by looking at who is saying what to whom, under what conditions and circumstances, with what intent and what result.

If a politician stands up and speaks to you and says, “I am giving you exactly what I believe, and then turns around and does the opposite, then you've got a pretty good yardstick. She was pretending to tell me something, and it turns out it wasn't what she meant at all. She meant something different,” says Mr. Lutz, in his doublespeak litmus test.

06:43 —  The first type of doublespeak is the euphemism.  “We want to talk about something, but because of social conventions, we don't use direct language; we use indirect language. You don't walk up to someone and say I'm sorry your mother died.

You say I'm sorry for your loss, or I'm sorry she passed away. But no one is being misled.  In fact, it's a mark of your concern for the other person that you use that euphemism.  

However when you start using a euphemism because you want to avoid the harsh reality, then you're engaged in doublespeak. For example, the State Department invented the euphemistic doublespeak term “unlawful, arbitrary detention” or “unlawful, arbitrary deprivation of life,” says Mr. Lutz.  

“It basically means that the government was busy killing its own citizens without benefit of trial or any other legal niceties, so [that's an example of where] euphemism moves into doublespeak.”

07:46 — The second kind of doublespeak is jargon, which usually centers around a particular industry or area of specialized knowledge.  In the workplace, by the workers, jargon is fine because everyone understands it.  But when you use it to mislead or obscure someone who does not know that jargon, then you've crossed the line into doublespeak.  

For example, “involuntary conversion” is a legal term that means the loss of use of your property due to fire, theft, or public condemnation.  

If your car is stolen, legally, that's an involuntary conversion of your property.  

However, when you talk, as one airline did, about the involuntary conversion of a 737, meaning that the plane crashed, then we've moved into using jargon is doublespeak.

08:57 — The third kind of doublespeak is bureaucratese or gobbledygook, where we just pile words upon words that nobody can figure out. ” I think the classic master of that was Alan Greenspan.

I used to listen to his testimony before Congress just so impressed with his use of economic jargon, doublespeak, gobbledygook and it all sounded so impressive, didn't it?  But it didn't mean anything that anybody could figure out,” says Mr. Lutz.

09:29 — The fourth kind of doublespeak is inflated language, which tries to make something impressive or important that really isn't.  For example, “used cars” are now “pre-owned” or even “experienced.”  We have “previewed DVDs” meaning they're “used.”  

The doorman on a building is the “access controller.”   And William's all-time favorite, the “predawn vertical insertion,” which was used by Pentagon Public Affairs, described the invasion of Grenada.

11:15 —  People are very good at recognizing doublespeak.  The constant use of doublespeak has a hardening effect in that we come to expect it, which is unfortunate because we shouldn't.

As an analogy, Lutz uses air quality. As long as the air quality is good, no one is concerned or pays much attention.” But as soon as the air quality becomes bad, suddenly everyone's up in arms. He believes we should have the same concerns about the quality of language that is used in public discourse. He says that we need to voice our concerns to politicians who use doublespeak much as we would to manufacturers of malfunctioning products.

We'd return the product for a refund and should do the same when we hear doublespeak by stopping being passive consumers of language and demanding those who use doublespeak to rephrase themselves.

14:13 — Using Enron as an example, Eric asks William whether or not the use of clear language can actually help investors detect fraud because organizations can just lie in plain English. It's difficult to lie in plain English cause it's easier for people to catch you.  

In the case of Enron, William explains that they used footnotes that were so cryptic they were incomprehensible and that both journalists and analysts covering the stock could not find a single Enron representative who could explain them.

It was not written in plain English. It was written in financial, economic jargon, bureaucratese, and gobbledygook and it was done, to deliberately mislead and hide what was going on because if they wrote it in plain English, so that it was even moderately understandable, and people read it, they were going to ask questions.  

And they probably would have figured out that instead of running a profit, they were running a multibillion-dollar loss.  And the other thing that's happened now is that if you've lie, the government can now prosecute you for fraud.  

So the folks at Enron had to write language that allowed them to pretend like it was all disclosed, but people just didn't understand it.  So you see, “mandating plain language, that is plain enough so that any reasonably intelligent investor can understand it, puts a strong legal restriction on people who try to attempt fraud,” says Lutz.

18:02 —  The direct-mail business, which counts on a 1% return rate for its sustenance, is a perfect opportunity for consumers to fight back against doublespeak by simply ripping up misleading or unclear offers and sending them back to the solicitor in the pre-paid envelope so that they pay postage, without netting a return.  

If just 5% of all direct-mail recipients protested this way, direct-mail solicitors would be forced to change their practices.

20:22 —  William addresses in inherent conflict of corporate social media policies. He takes a very conservative view from a legal perspective, given the prospect of legal harm.  

But, on the other hand, he recognizes that you can't stop these sharing technologies that are overwhelming us, acknowledging that organizations simply have to figure out a way to work with it.  

“It is interesting to note that even the Security and Exchange Commission in Washington DC does, now, have policies in place for Twittering, blogging, etc.,” says Mr. Lutz.  When he was there, Chairman Cox held a press conference where he fielded questions via Twitter.  

It's a recognition that organizations need social media policies.  “But you have to make a clear distinction and explain to employees that when they tweet from work or home if there's any suggestion that they are speaking as employees of the company, they have to be very careful because they are now bringing down onto the company all that responsibility,” continues Mr. Lutz.

24:38 — Issues involving content marketing at public companies, which William has seen cause specific regulatory problems, include the inadvertent, selective disclosure of earnings information via social media and employees publicly bashing their employers on social media — not small gripes but serious charges against the employer.  

It's a matter of context. Mr. Lutz says there is a lack online since social media makes it a little too easy to mistakenly send business communications to friends and family and personal messages to our professional colleagues.  Communications lacking context are easier to misinterpret, he says.

27:29 — The hot topic of discussion at the SEC is using Twitter to distribute links to financial disclosures on a public company's website.  Mr. Lutz discusses the SEC's guidance on the use of websites for corporate disclosures — covered in-depth in a previous episode of this podcast with Brain Lane, partner at Gibson Dunn and Crutcher and the former Director of the Division of Corporate Finance at the US Securities and Exchange Commission and Broc Romanek, the Editor ofTheCorporateCounsel.net and a former counselor to SEC Commissioner Laura Unger — pointing out that that guidance was based on research that demonstrated the web has become a widely accessible point of disclosure.  According to the SEC, Twitter is not widely accessible enough to fulfill the nonselective disclosure requirement.  

Nevertheless, Mr. Lutz supports using Twitter for business communications as long as companies don't rely on it for corporate disclosures.

29:27 — Regarding using company websites for financial disclosures from public companies, Mr. Lutz reminds us that websites do not exist by themselves.  There are still all kinds of regulatory and other legal documents filed with government entities that are not available on most company websites.  And all these disclosures have to agree with one another.  

So, the issue of coordinating all these dissemination sources is challenging and becomes a matter of document and information control.  Until we solve some of these issues, companies are going to be conservative in the number of outlets they use to disclose information simply because it demands so much work on their part to maintain all of them, which means they're going only to use the ones they see as most effective.

31:28 — When advising public companies looking to leverage Twitter for corporate disclosures, Mr. Lutz reminds them to carefully before they tweet.  “Don't send a message just for the sake of sending a message.” Add something material to the grist,  William admits he has stopped using Twitter altogether because he was unable to get the usefulness of the service.  

But his advice to others is: 

  1. Tweet only when you have something substantive to stay.
  2. Think carefully about how you want to say it.
  3. If the 140-character limit frustrates the completeness of your thought, send two or three tweets in succession.

33:32 — Eric tells William about Shel Israel's book Twitterville, featured in a previous episode of this podcast, and recommends it to better understand the usefulness of Twitter.  

35:18 — End

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