Changing our language

Two envelopes arrive through my door. They look official. I slice the first one open. It’s from Kingston Hospital confirming an oral surgery appointment to have my wisdom teeth removed – something that fills me with immediate dread. Could be worse. A few hundred years ago a doctor, or ‘quack’ as they were known, would’ve knocked my teeth out with a mallet. If I was lucky maybe some absinthe for the pain. So at least I’ve got modern dentistry and anaesthesia on my side.

I open the second letter, also from Kingston Hospital. It says, ‘we regret that due to unforeseen circumstances it has been found necessary to change your Oral Surgery appointment. At this time, we are able to offer you another Oral Surgery appointment.’

I’m not too bothered by the change. I’d only found out about the first appointment seconds earlier. But why did they deliver the news as if my puppy had died on the operating table? Could they not simply say, ‘due to a duplicate booking, we have had to change the date of your Oral Surgery appointment. The new date is X. We apologise for any inconvenience’? Instead they use foreboding language—‘circumstances unforeseen’ and ‘we regret’—that usually precede a doctor telling a patient they have five months to live.

This language is quite common in the lexicon of customer services and human resources. We get emails or letters responding to job or university applications saying ‘unfortunately, on this occasion, we regret to inform you that you were not selected’; or worse still, ‘you have been unsuccessful.’ These words are like neuro-linguistic bullets which test the mettle of our spirit. The world would be a better place if we banished them from all communications and replaced with more direct, honest and human language.

For example, if we replaced:

‘Unfortunately, we regret to inform you that on this occasion you were not selected.’


‘We are writing to inform you that another candidate was selected.’

Or would that be too direct?

Helping companies to communicate better is what we do as copywriters. But how do we change the way we deliver bad news? This may require a force stronger than a lone copywriter with good intentions. An online collective maybe, or a revolution! Social media could be just the vehicle to get the proverbial ball rolling.[/vc_column_text]


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