The word trick people use to manipulate you without actually lying

Just because you aren’t being flat-out lied to, doesn’t mean you aren’t being manipulated. That’s the main finding of a fascinating new study just released by the University of Waterloo that could help you with many work situations.

Canadian researchers tackled the subject of “doublespeak,” or the persuasive approach of using more appealing euphemisms to sway or mislead others’ opinions without outright lying. For example, a manager telling his or her workers that “budget cuts” are coming instead of using the word “lay-offs.”

In this scenario, the manager isn’t necessarily lying, but they also aren’t being totally transparent. It isn’t always right, but the doublespeak approach provides the user with a certain level of deniability. “I told you budget cuts were coming.”

You may assume that most people can see through euphemisms for what they really are immediately, but this research found the opposite. In most cases, using a euphemism helped the speaker be perceived more favorably by their peers.

“Like the much-studied phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ manipulative language can serve as a tool for misleading the public, doing so not with falsehoods but rather with the strategic use of euphemistic language,” says lead study author Alexander Walker, a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive psychology at Waterloo. “The avoidance of objectively false claims may provide the strategic user of language with plausible deniability of dishonesty, thus protecting them from the reputational cost associated with lying.”

In scientific terms, the research team classified “doublespeak” as “the strategic manipulation of language to influence the opinions of others by representing the truth in a manner that benefits one’s self.” In simpler terms, sometimes the truth isn’t so much black and white, but shades of gray.

Over a series of exercises, researchers set out to see if replacing a harsh truthful statement with something a bit more appealing would change how others reacted to the sentence. For instance, instead of saying “I work in a slaughterhouse,” uttering “I work in a meat-processing plant.” Both sentences essentially say the same thing, but one evokes much more unsettling mental imagery.

Across the board, using a euphemism led to the speaker being perceived and evaluated in a more positive light. Consequently, study authors conclude doublespeak is quite effective when it comes to manipulating in a self-serving manner.

“Our study shows how language can be used strategically to shape peoples’ opinions of events or actions,” Walker concludes. “With a lower level of risk, individuals may be able to utilize linguistic manipulation, such as doublespeak, often without correction.”

Lying often comes with consequences or at least the risk of repercussions. Euphemisms, however, provide the speaker with plausible deniability. 

Doublespeak and euphemisms aren’t always nefarious. There are plenty of perfectly respectable reasons to tell a rosier version of the truth than something a bit blunter. Ultimately, this research can help you detect doublespeak more often in day-to-day life. The next time a friend, manager, or co-worker uses a very specific or curious phrase, ask yourself why they may be choosing to use those words in particular. 

The full study can be found here, published in Cognition.