Saturday, March 29, 2014

Using euphemism to cushion the blow of request rejections

It’s tempting to say that plain, simple, and forthright English is the best way to phrase a response, but there are highly sensitive situations when it could be such a terrible aggravation. For such situations, we need to take recourse instead to euphemism—an indirect, gentler phrasing of our message so it won’t cause offense or arouse hostility. This is the kind of English that I would advise when, say, rejecting applications for a requested service like a credit card, a postpaid smart phone facility, or perhaps a car or housing loan.

Let’s hear from DMP, a customer service representative who asked me for advice recently on how to deal with such tough on-the-job communication situations:

I recently started working as a customer service representative, and part of my job is to inform customers about the results of their service applications.
 Most of the time, I do not need to provide specific information on why their applications are being approved or rejected. However, there are instances when a customer demands an explanation, and we are then required to elaborate. This often makes me very uncomfortable, especially when the reasons are sensitive in nature.
 For example, when the rejection is due to their bankruptcy status, or because their company is winding up, or that a family member has called in and told the company that the applicant is mentally unsound.
 Would you have any suggestions on how to gently phrase those three situations to customers? I would really appreciate your help.

My reply to DMP:

When turning down somebody’s service application for reasons that are sensitive in nature, you will need to say it in something other than plain, simple, and forthright English. You have to take recourse to euphemistic language, or an agreeable or inoffensive statement that won’t suggest something unpleasant. This, of course, is nothing less than applied diplomacy—the skill of handling affairs without arousing hostility. It’s an art form that needs to be learned and practiced purposively and rigorously both in words and in action.

Let’s see how you might euphemistically phrase your responses to the three situations you presented:

1. Rejection due to bankruptcy status: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due an unfavorable report we have obtained about (your, your company’s) current credit status.”

2. Rejection due to impending company closure: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due to advice we received that your company will be ceasing operations in the immediate future.”

3. Rejection due to negative feedback from the applicant’s family: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due to unfavorable advice we received from your family regarding the need for the service.”

General statements like these are usually designed to redirect the onus of the rejection from the entity making the rejection to an agency other than the applicant himself or herself. The statement need to be phrased in a way that doesn’t pointedly pass judgment on the applicant but encourages a quiet, nondefensive self-reappraisal of why he or she can’t be given what is being requested or asked for.

I trust that these thoughts will be of help to you in fashioning your service rejection letters. (March 30, 2014)

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