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Euphemism and Face

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Looking Out for Number One: Euphemism
and Face
By Matthew S. McGlone and Jennifer A. Batchelor
Communicators have two possible motives for referring to a distasteful topic euphe-
mistically: to minimize threat to the addressees face and to minimize threat to
their own. The experiment reported here investigated the influence of these interre-
lated but distinct face motives on euphemism use. Participants described a series of
photographs, one of which depicted a distasteful stimulus (e.g., dog urine), in elec-
tronic messages they sent to a fictitious remotely located recipient. Some partici-
pants were led to believe they would meet the recipient at the experiments conclu-
sion, whereas others believed they would not meet and therefore remain anony-
mous to the recipient. Euphemisms were used to describe the distasteful stimuli
more frequently among participants who believed their identities would be dis-
closed to the recipient. These results suggest that communicators are inclined to
use euphemisms more for self-presentational purposes than out of concern for their
addressees sensibilities.
In polite conversation, we might excuse ourselves to use the restroom even though
we have no intention of resting there, remark that two friends are sleeping together
when they have never jointly dozed, or credit a bun in the oven to a colleague
with neither the time nor inclination to do any baking. We employ such euphe-
misms when we are reluctant to utter more semantically transparent terms (uri-
nate, sex, pregnancy) for certain unsettling topics. However, given that we feel
the need to raise unsettling topics on occasion, what do we gain from using
euphemisms to describe them? Lexicographers have traditionally characterized
euphemism as a linguistic substitution strategy (e.g., substitution of use the restroom
for urinate) motivated by a communicators reluctance to offend an addressee
(Carnoy, 1927; Crystal, 1997; Partridge, 1947; Rawson, 1995). On this view, the
communicator attempts to diminish the addressees discomfort about discussing
an unsettling topic by steering clear of the topics most transparent signifiers. A
large body of research in social cognition offers empirical justification for lexical
avoidance on these grounds. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the mere
Matthew S. McGlone is associate professor of psychology at Lafayette College. Jennifer A. Batchelor is
a 1998 graduate of Lafayette College. Direct correspondence regarding this article to Matthew S. McGlone,
Department of Psychology, Lafayette College, Easton, PA 18042-1781.
Copyright 2003 International Communication Association
Journal of Communication, June 2003
252
comprehension of a word denoting a concept toward which people hold a nega-
tive attitude is sufficient to activate the attitude and arouse its associated negative
affect (see Bargh, Chaiken, Raymond, & Hymes, 1996, for a review). These find-
ings suggest that communicators might indeed be able to afford their addressees
some comfort by substituting a euphemism for the blunter term. Why, though,
might they exhibit such concern for their addressees comfort in the first place?
Aside from basic good will, this concern arises from consideration of the public
self-image, or face, that interlocutors project in a conversational encounter. Dis-
course theorists have suggested that face management is a common conversa-
tional subtext, compelling people to act in ways that preserve their public self-
images and thereby save face (Clark & Schunk, 1980; Goffman, 1955, 1981). Any
behavior that might compromise ones face constitutes a face-threatening act, which
people generally try to avoid. Face-threatening situations nevertheless do occur,
and when they do, interlocutors collaboratively employ politeness strategies to
mitigate the threat (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Clark, 1979; Holtgraves, 1986). These
situations can be divided into those threatening interlocutors desire for autonomy
(termed negative face) and those threatening their desire to be positively re-
garded by and connected to others (positive face). Making a request is a threat
to negative face. Direct requests (e.g., Will you open the window?) clearly impose
on the addressees autonomy and consequently are not often used in communica-
tions between peers (Ervin-Tripp, 1976; Gibbs, 1983). To mitigate the threat, com-
municators articulate their requests in a form that downplays the imposition. A
common strategy is to question the preconditions for performance of the request.
For example, in order to comply with a request, the addressee must be able and
willing to do so. The communicator may pose a request for action indirectly by
questioning the addressees ability (e.g., Can you open the window?) or willing-
ness (Would you open the window?), thereby avoiding the more blatant imposition
of a direct request (Clark 1979; Searle, 1975).
Referring to a distasteful topic is a threat to positive face (Brown & Levinson,
1987). For example, if Carl mentions the topic of urination in an exchange with his
acquaintance Adele (e.g., I have to urinate), positive face concerns arise for both
parties. The addressees face is threatened insofar as she perceives the communi-
cator as disrespectful to her public self. Thus, if Adele construes Carls mention of
urination as indicating blithe disregard for her sensibilities, she will feel that her
positive face has been diminished.
1
In contrast, the communicators face is threat-
ened by the shadow his own utterance casts on his public self. By raising the
distasteful topic, Carl risks being regarded by Adele as insensitive and thereby
jeopardizes his positive face. As in situations that threaten negative face, indirect
reference is also a common strategy for reducing positive face threat (Brown &
Levinson, 1987). In this case, Carl can communicate his intention without baldly
mentioning urination by using a euphemistic expression such as I have to use the
1
Note that the force of this example does not derive from assuming that Adele is especially priggish or
squeamish about the topic. Even if Adele is fascinated by it, she might still take offense at its mention
by an acquaintance because social norms dictate that it be baldly discussed only among intimates such
as close friends, lovers, or relatives (Allan & Burridge, 1991).
Euphemism and Face
253
restroom, which referentially veils the location (by substituting restroom for toilet)
and nature (urination being only one of several possible uses for this facility) of
the act.
The preceding analysis suggests that when a distasteful topic is raised, commu-
nicators have two possible motives for describing it euphemistically: to minimize
threat to the addressees face and, by reflection, to preserve their own face (cf.
Allan & Burridge, 1991). These motives are interrelated but distinct. The former
entails that the communicator is apprehensive about discomforting the addressee
principally out of empathy. In the latter, this apprehension stems from consider-
ation of the negative consequences for the communicator of discomforting the
addressee. To what extent does each motive influence a communicators use of
euphemism on any given occasion? Although there have been no empirical stud-
ies of euphemism that address this question, psychological research on the mum
effect offers some clues.
Rosen and Tesser (1970) originally demonstrated the mum effect in an experi-
ment investigating how people transmit news. While waiting to begin a con-
sumer preference study, participants heard a message purportedly intended for a
peer (a confederate) who would be arriving soon. The peer was to call home
about some very bad news. When given the opportunity to transmit the message,
all participants told the peer to call home, but few (~20%) mentioned that the
news was bad. In contrast, when participants were told that the news was good,
the vast majority (~85%) communicated its valence to the peer. Subsequent re-
search has established the generality of this reluctance to transmit the valence of
bad news (the mum effect) to communications in casual and professional settings
(Fisher, 1979; Folkes, 1982; Kivlighan, 1985; Tesser & Rosen, 1975; Waitzkin, 1984).
Why do people tend to keep mum about bad news? Two explanations have
been advanced. One is that communicators anticipate the addressees distress
upon hearing the bad news and keep mum out of empathetic concern. Consistent
with this proposal, communicators retrospectively report feeling sorry for address-
ees and feeling bad themselves during the transmission of bad news (Tesser &
Rosen, 1975; Tesser, Rosen, & Waranch, 1973). However, an alternative (and less
charitable) explanation is that the mum effect is self-presentational: Communica-
tors do not keep mum out of empathy, but rather affect reluctance to avoid an
unfavorable impression and appear humane (Baumeister, 1982). This contention
is supported by the dramatic attenuation in the effect that occurs when communi-
cators believe their identities are concealed from addressees (Bond & Anderson,
1987; Kardes & Kimble, 1984). Apparently, when they presume their public iden-
tities to be invulnerable to transmission blowback, communicators deliver bad
news with little loss of fluency.
The explanations offered for the mum effect correspond to the dual motives
we have considered for using a euphemism. When an unsettling topic is raised
(be it bad news or some other unpleasant subject), the form of the message (bald
or euphemistic) and the manner in which it is conveyed (blithely or reluctantly)
may be motivated by the communicators empathy (i.e., concern for the addressees
positive face) or self-presentational goals (concern for ones own positive face).
How compelling are these motives to communicators? With the possible excep-
Journal of Communication, June 2003
254
tion of the communication of grave misfortune (e.g., your grandmother has passed
away), we are skeptical about empathys force as a motive for euphemism. Al-
though the bearers of bad news may report empathetic concern for their address-
ees, these reports create a favorable impression (i.e., portraying the bearer as
sensitive and considerate) and thereby can serve a self-presentational motive (Kardes
& Kimble, 1984). Similarly, it would be dubious to infer that euphemisms are
used out of consideration for addressees sensibilities on the basis of communica-
tors self-reports. To accurately identify peoples motives for using euphemisms
in a given situation, one must employ a methodology less susceptible to reactive
responding.
We report an experiment investigating peoples spontaneous use of euphe-
mism, designed with this reactivity concern in mind. Participants described a se-
ries of photographs in electronic messages they believed were being transmitted
to a person in a different location. They were also led to believe that this person
perused the messages to prepare for a quiz about the photographs contents. One
of the photographs depicted an event (e.g., a dog walking away from a puddle of
urine) that we expected to elicit euphemistic descriptors when participants were
motivated to phrase their descriptions politely. Prior to describing the photos,
some participants were told they would meet the recipient of their messages after
the experiment was completed; others were told their identities would not be
disclosed to the recipient. If euphemism use is motivated by concern for the
recipients positive face, participants should use them with equal frequency whether
or not they believe their identities will be disclosed in the immediate future. In
contrast, we suspect that euphemism use, like the mum effect, primarily serves a
self-presentational motive, protecting the communicators positive face. Accord-
ingly, we predicted that participants who believed their identities would be dis-
closed (thereby making their public selves vulnerable to transmission blowback)
would be more likely to use euphemisms than those who believed they would
remain unidentified.
Method
Participants
Ninety-eight Lafayette College undergraduates (68 F, 30 M) participated in this
experiment for extra credit in introductory psychology and statistics courses. All
were native English speakers between the ages of 18 and 23.
Materials
Five stimulus photographs were created for this experiment. The photos were
taken in or near a suburban, single-family home in a neighboring township. Three
neutral photos depicted mundane domestic events and thus were unlikely in
our estimation to prompt people to employ politeness strategies when describing
them. One depicted a woman pushing a lawnmower past a swing set on which
two young girls were playing. A second depicted a teenage boy typing on a
computer in front of a bulletin board covered with sports pennants and photos.
Euphemism and Face
255
The third showed a kitten pawing at a piece of string dangled by an adult male
sitting on a living room sofa. Two target stimulus photographs depicted events
that we expected to elicit euphemistic expressions when people were motivated
to phrase their descriptions politely. One (the urine photo hereafter) showed an
adult dog walking away from a puddle of urine on a tile kitchen floor. The second
(the feces photo) showed a parrot perched on the backrest of an armchair
above a seated, frowning adult male with what appears to be bird feces soiling the
right lapel of his blazer. All of the photos were taken with an Olympus D-460
Zoom digital camera and were printed as color 8 x 10 inch plates in high resolu-
tion on photographic paper. Two sets of stimulus lists were created from the five
photos. Each list contained the three neutral and one of the target (urine or
feces) photos. The presentation order of the neutral photos was randomly gen-
erated for each participant, but the target photo was always presented penultimately.
Procedure
Each participant arrived alone at the laboratory for an experiment entitled Elec-
tronic Communication Study and was greeted by an experimenter of the same
gender. The experimenter explained that the study investigated peoples use of
electronic media to send and receive information about daily life experiences.
Participants were told that a transfer of information via e-mail would take place
between them and another (fictitious) participant purportedly located on the other
side of the building. The experimenter did not use a name or pronoun that might
lead the participant to infer this individuals gender, instead referring to this per-
son as simply the other participant. The experimenter explained that the two
participants would be randomly assigned to the roles of sender and recipient.
The sender would examine a series of photographs depicting various events in
the daily life of a local family and send e-mail messages describing the depicted
events to the recipient. The recipient would receive and peruse each message to
prepare for a brief quiz about the contents of the photograph. According to the
cover story, the recipient would never actually see the photographs, and so would
rely entirely on the senders messages to answer the quiz questions.
The real and fictitious participants were assigned the roles of sender and recipi-
ent, respectively, by a random selection ruse. The participant-sender was then
seated at a table in front of a networked Gateway Pentium III PC and given
instructions for using the Eudora Lite (Version 3.0) electronic mail protocol. The
experimenter explained that the sender would be sending messages from the
address ecommsend to the recipient at the address ecommreceive. Both of these
electronic addresses were created exclusively for this experiment and maintained
on a campus mail server. On each trial, the sender had 4 minutes to examine each
stimulus photograph, compose an e-mail message describing its contents, and
send the message to the recipient. The experimenter encouraged the sender to
compose messages in complete sentences using familiar English words. The sender
was also told that the recipient, upon receipt of the message, would have 3 min-
utes to study it before taking a short quiz about the photographs contents.
After fielding any questions about the mailing procedure, the experimenter
addressed two issues regarding the disclosure of the participants identity that
Journal of Communication, June 2003
256
were crucial to the experiment. First, the participant was told that the experi-
menter herself would never have the opportunity to read the messages prepared
by the participant; instead, they would be stored on the computer and reviewed
by another party at some later date. The point of this statement, which accurately
describes our procedure, was to discourage participants from engaging in impres-
sion management toward the experimenter, rather than or in addition to the ficti-
tious recipient. Second, the experimenter manipulated participants beliefs about
the disclosure of their identities to the recipient by explaining how the experiment
would conclude. Participants in the identity-disclosed belief condition were told
that after they had sent their last message, they would wait for the recipient to
finish the last photograph quiz and walk over to the lab from the remote location.
When the recipient arrived, according to the cover story, the sender and recipient
would get to meet face-to-face and be debriefed about the purpose of the experi-
ment together. In the identity-undisclosed belief condition, participants were
told that after they had sent their last message, they would be debriefed alone and
then be free to leave the lab. The experimenter explained in this condition that
due to the logistical constraints of running an experiment in two remote loca-
tions, the sender and recipient would not get to meet face-to-face and would
have to be debriefed separately.
After this manipulation, the experimenter randomly assigned the participant to
one of the two stimulus lists and the experiment began. The experimenter timed
each trial with a stopwatch and alerted the participant when to begin and end the
trial. When 4 minutes had elapsed, the participant was told to stop typing the
message (even if in the middle of a sentence) and send it immediately. After
completing all four trials (three neutral and one critical photo trial), each partici-
pant completed a short questionnaire (a manipulation check) and was then de-
briefed. On average, the entire procedure lasted 30 minutes.
Design
This experiment employed a 2 x 2 factorial design with target photo (urine or
feces) and disclosure belief (disclosed or undisclosed) as between-participant vari-
ables. The dependent variable was the type of expression (dichotomously classi-
fied as a euphemism or noneuphemism) participants used to describe the critical
stimuli in the target photos.
Results
During the debriefing, 4 of the 98 participants expressed suspicion about the
existence of the remotely located recipient. In the manipulation check question-
naire, two additional participants incorrectly recalled whether they had been told
they would or would not have the opportunity to meet the recipient after the
experiment was over. We excluded these 6 participants from the data analyses,
leaving 92 (23 per cell) in our 2 x 2 design. Initial analyses did not reveal any
significant main effects or interactions involving participant gender, so subsequent
analyses collapsed across this factor.
Euphemism and Face
257
Participants messages describing the target photos were analyzed for the pres-
ence of euphemisms. For identification purposes, we operationally defined eu-
phemism as an expression referring to a stimulus that is perceived as more polite
than the stimulus conventional literal label. Thus, we considered any word or
phrase in the target message transcripts to be a euphemism if it (a) referred to a
critical stimulus (urine or feces) in a target photo and (b) was perceived as a more
polite way of referring to the stimulus than the term urine or feces. Identifying
euphemisms in the message transcripts was a two-stage process. In the first stage,
two independent judges identified the words and phrases participants used to
describe the critical stimuli in the target photos. These judges were unaware of
our research hypotheses and blind to the disclosure belief condition in which the
messages had been generated. After studying the critical photos carefully for 5
minutes each, the judges read the message transcripts and used highlighter pens
to identify the initial words or phrases in the transcripts they believed were used
to signify the critical stimuli. For example, one of the messages described the
urine photo as follows (unedited):
This one shows a dog (maybe a beagle) walking across a black and white
checkerboard-like floor from right to left. The dog made a puddle of number
one on the floor and appears to be walking away from it with has sort of a sad
or embarrassed look on its face. the dog has light brown fur on most of its
body but has white fur on its legs. You can see some kitchen cabinets and a
refrigerator on left, a metal clock on a white wall in back and a shelf with some
books on it on the right. Oh theres also a red chair right under the clock.
Both judges identified the phrase made a puddle of number one as the initial
(and, in this case, sole
2
) signifier in the transcript for urine in the target photo. The
judges selected the same word (e.g., peed) or phrase (made a puddle of number
one) as signifying the critical stimulus in 82 of the 92 (89.1%) transcripts they
inspected. Disagreements were resolved by discussion between the judges and
the input of a third party.
3
In the second stage, a different pair of independent, experimentally naive judges
evaluated the politeness of the signifying expressions identified in the first stage.
Separate questionnaires were prepared listing the expressions for urination and
defecation selected from the message transcripts. The judges were instructed to
first read through all of the expressions in each list and then indicate whether
2
The majority of the message transcripts (74 of 92) contained only one expression (euphemistic or not)
referring to the critical stimulus; none of the transcripts contained more than two such references. Of
the 18 that contained two references, 6 employed the same word or phrase in both references and 8
used a pronoun (it or that) as the second reference. For the 12 transcripts that contained 2 lexically
distinct references, only the first reference was included in subsequent analyses.
3
In the vast majority of these disagreements, one judge included an auxiliary term as part of the
signifying expression that the other judge had not. For example, in one of the messages describing the
feces photo, one judge highlighted the phrase took a crap as signifying feces while the other high-
lighted only crap. To resolve disagreements of this sort, we instructed judges to choose the more
inclusive selection (in this case, took a crap) as the signifier.
Journal of Communication, June 2003
258
each expression was in their view (a) more polite than literal term, or (b) as or
less polite than the literal term. We provided the lexical triads urine/urinate/
urination and feces/defecate/defecation as the literal comparison terms for the
different expression lists.
4
For example, both judges considered the expression
made a puddle of number one more polite than urinate, but deemed took a whiz
less polite than the literal. The judges classifications were in agreement for 88 of
the 92 (96.7%) expressions they evaluated. Disagreements were resolved by clas-
sifying the expression according to the lower politeness evaluation.
5
Thus, if one
judge considered the expression more polite than the literal and the other consid-
ered it as or less polite, it was classified as or less polite. Examples of the
dichotomously classified urine and feces expressions are in Table 1. According
to our operational definition, the expressions classified by the judges as more
polite than the literal term constitute euphemisms.
Figure 1 presents the frequency of expressions in the two politeness categories
by target photo and disclosure belief condition. We hypothesized that the fre-
quency of euphemism use would be higher when participants believed their iden-
tities would be disclosed to the recipient than when they believed they would
Table 1. Examples of Generated Expressions by Target Photo and Politeness Classification
Target photo
Urine Feces
More polite than went to the bathroom had a messy accident
the literal term
made a puddle of number one did number two
pottied droppings
made a wet mess soiled
As or less polite a pool of urine dripped feces
than the literal term
took a whiz fecal stains
peed took a crap
pissed a puddle shit
4
Participants generated nominal (e.g., a pool of urine) and predicative (went to the bathroom) expres-
sions to describe the critical stimuli. We provided judges with nominal and predicative forms of the
literal terms so they would have comparisons of the same grammatical class for all generated expres-
sions.
5
Classifying the disputed expressions using the opposite strategy (i.e., according to the higher polite-
ness evaluation) did not significantly alter our results, so we report our findings using the more
conservative strategy.
Euphemism and Face
259
remain anonymous. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a logit model analysis
(Norusis, 1996). This procedure is similar to a nonhierarchical log-linear analysis,
but allows dichotomous variables to be treated as dependents (Agresti, 1990).
Parameter estimates were generated for a logit model treating expression type
(euphemism or noneuphemism) as a dichotomous dependent variable predicted
by the categorical independent variables disclosure belief (disclosed or undis-
closed), target photo (urine or feces), and their interaction. Only the parameter
estimate for disclosure belief ( = -0.99) reached significance in this analysis, z =
-2.16, p < .02 (SE = .46). Analysis of the simple effect of disclosure belief indicated
that, as we predicted, participants used euphemisms with significantly higher fre-
quency when they believed their identities would be disclosed (67.4%) than when
they believed they would remain unidentified (47.8%),
2
(1) = 4.56, p < .02. Par-
ticipants describing the feces photo were somewhat more likely to use euphe-
misms than those describing the urine photo (62.0% and 52.2%, respectively), but
this trend was not statistically significant, p > .15, nor was the disclosure belief x
target photo interaction, p > .20.
Discussion
The ancient Greeks not only gave us the word euphemism (eu + pheme, pleasant
speaking), but also provided a paradigmatic example of its use. Greek myths tell
of the dreaded Erinyes (the angry ones, also known as the Furies in Roman
mythology), a trio of bat-shaped goddesses with snake-snarled heads who occu-
pied themselves terrorizing ignoble mortals. God-fearing Greeks referred to the
Figure 1. Expression frequency by target photo and disclosure belief.
as or less polite than literal
more polite (euphemism)
Journal of Communication, June 2003
260
hideous goddesses as the Eumenides, or pleasant ones, not out of sympathy or
respect, but to avoid the negative consequences of referring to them by their less
complimentary literal title. According to legend, any mortal who dared to refer to
them as the Erinyesa designation apparently restricted to intrapantheon com-
municationswould be visited by the goddesses and driven mad by their terrify-
ing appearance (Rose, 1964). Divine retribution is, of course, a far more fearsome
consequence than the potential loss of face incurred by offending a human ad-
dressee. Nevertheless, our results suggest that when they felt vulnerable, partici-
pants generally found the prospect of losing face averse enough to avoid the most
transparent terms for distasteful topics in favor of euphemisms.
We noted two related but distinct face motives for euphemism use. One as-
sumes that communicators are reluctant to discomfort or embarrass an addressee
by baldly referring to a distasteful topic, purely out of concern for the addressees
positive face. The second characterizes euphemism as a self-presentational strat-
egy communicators use to appear considerate or sympathetic to the addressee
and thereby preserve their own positive face. Our results suggest that participants
generally found the latter motive more compelling than the former. Participants
frequently used euphemisms to describe urine (e.g., made a puddle of number
one) and feces (droppings) in their messages when they believed they would
meet the recipient after the experiment. However, they used euphemisms signifi-
cantly less frequently when they believed their identities would not be disclosed
to the recipient.
That participants were more inclined to use euphemisms in the service of self-
presentation than out of consideration for their addressees is also supported by
cases in which the generated euphemisms violated the Gricean maxim of manner.
According to this maxim, communicators should formulate perspicuous utterances,
avoiding obscurity of expression and unnecessary ambiguity (Grice, 1975). In the
admittedly peculiar communicative context of our experiment, participants for-
mulated their messages believing that the fictitious recipient would peruse them
to prepare for a quiz about the photos contents. Under these circumstances, a
cooperative communicator would be expected to articulate all salient aspects of
the photo that might be fair game for the quiz. However, the euphemisms partici-
pants generated were in some cases too vague for the reader to infer their specific
referent. For example, one of the most popular euphemisms used to describe
both critical stimuli was went to the bathroom and other variations on the lavatory
theme (used the bathroom, pottied, etc.). This cluster accounted for over a quarter
of all euphemisms generated (32.3% and 25% of the euphemisms generated for
feces and urine, respectively). Given that we typically characterize birds single
mode of excreting bodily waste as defecation, these euphemisms unambiguously
code the critical stimulus in the feces photo. Dogs, on the other hand, have two
modes of excretion available to them, so employing the expression went to the
bathroom to describe the critical stimulus in the urine photo is uncooperative in
that it doesnt distinguish between these modes. It is, of course, possible that
participants who used an ambiguous euphemism here did not actually intend to
be uncooperative, but rather assumed that a specific coding was unnecessary
because the type of excretion depicted was simply too distasteful a topic to ap-
Euphemism and Face
261
pear on the quiz about the photos contents. However, if participants believed the
quiz had been created by the same individual who thought it appropriate to show
them the distasteful stimulus photos in the first place, it is unclear why they would
make this assumption.
Although occasionally vague, the euphemisms generated by our participants
also tended to be highly conventional. Thus, even when a euphemism did not
referentially single out the species of distasteful stimulus depicted in a target photo
(e.g., used the bathroom), participants nonetheless could expect recipients to
recognize its genus by virtue of the expressions familiarity. Yet, familiarity would
seem, prima facie, to work against a euphemisms effectiveness in mitigating face
threat. After all, if the literal label for an unpleasant topic has such strong associa-
tions as to elicit negative affect upon its mere mention (Bargh et al., 1996), wouldnt
a euphemism that has itself become a conventional label for the topic have strong
negative associations as well? Lexicographer Hugh Rawson (1995) suggested that
the career of a euphemism is determined by a linguistic incarnation of the eco-
nomic principle known as Greshams Law, whereby undervalued currency drives
full-value currency out of circulation. Just as bad money drives out the good in
a monetary system, Rawson argued that through frequent usage, euphemisms
become contaminated by their bad associations, which eventually drive them
out of conversational circulation. Although some form of this principle might
operate on a more macroscopic level of analysis, the frequency with which highly
familiar euphemisms were generated in our experiment does not support Rawsons
argument. Our participants clearly believed the euphemisms they employed were
sufficiently polite to preserve face, despite their familiarity. Why they resorted to
idiomatic euphemisms in this context, and whether they might be more creative in
other contexts, remain questions for future research to address.
Self- and other-face preservation motives are operatively entwined in face-to-
face communications, thereby making it difficult for an observer to determine
which motive underlies a communicators use of euphemism in an in-person ex-
change. Our primary purpose for using an electronic communication scenario in
this study was to create distinct experimental conditions in which we could ob-
serve euphemism frequency when only one or both motives (the identity-undis-
closed and identity-disclosed belief conditions, respectively) were borne out by
context. At a time when more than half the adult population in the U.S. uses e-
mail on a regular basis (Wallace, 1999), this experimental scenario hardly seems
contrived. Although e-mail messages are rarely anonymous in a strict sense, the
identity by which we know (and are known by) some electronic correspon-
dents amounts to little more than an alphanumeric address, which in turn may
offer scant information about the owners personal identity. In this regard, the
identity-undisclosed belief condition resembles an e-mail exchange between strang-
ers in an Internet chat room. Just as we observed a lower rate of polite expres-
sions for the critical stimuli in this condition relative to the identity-disclosed con-
trol, some have alleged that there is less observance of politeness conventions in
e-mail and Internet exchanges than in other forms of interpersonal communica-
tion (Wallace, 1999). Although there has been little systematic research document-
ing alleged lapses in netiquette (e.g., Mabry, 1997; Walther, 1996), our results
Journal of Communication, June 2003
262
suggest why they might occur. Communicators employ politeness strategies such
as euphemism and indirect requests to save face, especially their own, in poten-
tially awkward discourse contexts. However, a transmitted message has self-pre-
sentational currency, or face value, to communicators only when they believe
they can be identified as the message source. When they presume anonymity,
communicators do not feel vulnerable to face threats, and so there is no self-
presentational motivation to employ a face-preserving politeness strategy.
Euphemism is comparable to other self-presentation tactics. Like keeping mum
about bad news, it is a defensive maneuver, performed more to limit the self-
presentational damage of raising an awkward topic than to secure self-presenta-
tional gain (Bond & Anderson, 1987; Tesser & Rosen, 1975). Like an apology or an
excuse, euphemisms play to a situated, external audience, not an internal self-
image (Schlenker, 1980; Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983). If they served an inter-
nal self-image, the frequency with which our participants used euphemisms would
not have fluctuated with their beliefs about the disclosure of their identities. In-
stead, the desire to make a positive impression on the external audience (the
fictitious recipient, in this case) appeared to regulate euphemism use.
Euphemisms constitute a rich and dynamic domain of discourse that has largely
been ignored by language and communication research. We suspect this neglect
is due in part to a widespread belief that euphemisms are unnecessary at best and
misleading at worst. The most outspoken advocate of this position was novelist
and social critic George Orwell. In his famous 1946 essay, Politics and English
Language, Orwell condemned euphemisms as a symptom of a pathologically
inhibited society, a corrosive influence on linguistic clarity, and a tool of thought
control. Although still influential in some circles (especially critics of political
doublespeak, such as Lutz, 1989), Orwells claims rest on dated deterministic
assumptions about the relationship between language and thought that have not
held up to psycholinguistic scrutiny (McGlone, 2001; Pinker, 1994). We are more
sympathetic to essayist Cullen Murphys (1996) suggestion that euphemisms are
analogous to white blood cells, in that their appearance in discourse might well
be a sign of mild or serious pathologybut its also a sign that a natural defense
mechanism has kicked in(p. 16). Euphemisms do reflect inner anxieties and hang-
ups, but their very existence suggests that people can use linguistic face work to
confront and discuss these inhibitions, if not overcome them.
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