Sounds funny, doesn’t it? The original statement, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” was uttered by Jack Swigert, an astronaut on the Apollo 13 mission which, as many people know, became a monumental struggle for survival. Today, the statement is part of the lexicon as “Houston, we have a problem” and is used humorously to announce any type of problem.
Of course, the Apollo 13 crew was facing a life or death situation. Imagine if they had substituted the word “challenge” for the word “problem.” The entire meaning of the statement would have changed to become something less threatening, more benign.
Today in business, there are no problems; there are only “challenges.” No weaknesses, only “areas for improvement.” No jobs are cut, they get “downsized.” Wall Street has taken things much further. Stockholders don’t sell, they “take profits.” Stocks don’t plummet, they “correct.”
Early in graduate school, as part of my studies, I read the book “Language in Thought and Action,” by the psychologist, semanticist and former U.S. senator, S.I. Hayakawa. At the beginning of this book, there is a parable called “The Story of A-Town and B-Ville.” (You can read the parable here.) It tells the story of two communities that are facing similar problems but view them differently and use different words and phrases to describe the problems and fix them. It is just a story, and a fictional one at that, but it says something very important: Language influences behavior.
The language I described earlier is extremely contagious –- I like to call it a speech virus. We hear a word or a phrase enough times, spoken by respectable people and soon it starts sounding right and we start using it, continuing the cycle of contagion. But this selective use of language does a disservice to both the business using it and its stakeholders by providing a way for businesses to deny that problems exist or hide from them. It also lessens the likelihood that problems will be noticed by stakeholders. The less negative, less harsh feelings these subtle substitutions generate in us have profound effects. Necessary urgency is diminished. Solutions are delayed. Are we more likely to begin an urgent search for a new job if we know that a lot of people are about to be “fired?” Are we more likely to work on our professional skills if we know we have “weaknesses?” Are we more likely to hold those responsible to account if stocks “plummet?”
I do not think we should do away with euphemisms entirely. There are many instances when they serve a useful purpose. But I do think that their excessive use in business has been taking us all down a very slippery slope and in some cases has proven to be downright harmful. And I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened to the Apollo 13 crew if astronaut Jim Swigert had tried to soften his words.