Monthly Archives: May 2013

Euphemisms and Doublespeak: Here to serve you

Sometimes, my work space looks like this:

desk and tables covered with books and notes

Creativity at work

The space is like a notepad version of “Where’s Waldo.” Find the stationery with the story brainstorming list on it. Go ahead, take your time.

I call what you see here “creative chaos.”

What you can’t see in the picture is a lot of the floor. The floor gets very creative. At the epicenter of the creativity you can usually find my chair, unless it’s been a breezy day.

Merriam-Webster defines a “euphemism” as follows: “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also: the expression so substituted.” The word comes from the Greek euphēmismos, basically, speech that sounds good.

Another (accurate) description of my work space is, sometimes: an unholy mess. But that doesn’t sound nearly as nice as creative chaos. A good friend of mine used to joke about her messy room by plucking a desired item from an otherwise indistinguishable heap on the first try and announcing: “there’s a method to my madness.” I like that. The statement suggests intent. A plan. Decision-making.

As a writer, I like “creative chaos” for additional reasons. The phrase conveys dashes of artistry, productivity, and a possible relationship to cosmological Big Bang ideas. All very nice, indeed. My creative chaos underlines the fact that I am very busy and important (thanks, Bridget Jones).

Euphemisms are great. Politicians and corporations use them a lot. My favorite corporate-related euphemism comes up all the time in the avaricious consumerist holiday season replacing Christmas every year. If you turn on the radio or your TV, or the YouTube video you are trying to watch gets hijacked by some ad, you’ll hear a version of this doublespeak. It goes something like this:

“Do you like to SAVE? Shop XYZ Company this holiday season!”

No one has yet clarified for me how purchasing something involves simultaneously saving my money. But maybe that’s why I’ve never had more than one credit card.

Job descriptions are great for euphemisms, too. Here are a few, along with their real-world translations, that make the rounds occasionally in an email forward (one of my former co-workers had the full list pegged to the corkboard above her desk; I love people with a sense of humor):

  • Competitive salary
    “We remain competitive by paying less than our competitors.”
  • Must be deadline oriented
    “You’ll be six months behind schedule on your first day.”
  • Must have an eye for detail
    “We have no quality control.”
  • Seeking candidates with a wide variety of experience
    “You’ll need it to replace three people who just left.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be recognized for my broad range of experience and ability to meet deadlines, than tasked with balancing a row of spinning plates while not earning much money.

The same kind of language manipulation happens a lot in the food space. “All natural” is one of my favorites. What does “all natural” mean? If you ask a flavor scientist, you might conclude that their answer has no bearing on your question.

I could write a lot about the ways we parlay language like a shield — which is kind of the point. Euphemisms are great. Not just for job interviews and food marketing, but also for Jane Austen and George Eliot. (What is the society in Pride & Prejudice if not one giant euphemism pond? Mr. Bennett: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you.” One sentence encompasses conflict, character motivation — and humor).

Euphēmismos — the tension between what’s said and what’s really meant. Which is the place that a lot of good stories and jokes come from.

Therefore, I deduce that I have some great stories coming out of this writing work space. If I can locate them in the pile of papers.

Is there a method to your madness?  Let’s hear some of your favorite turns of phrase below.

Attentional bias and what it means for your work

or: the magic of little red cars

two little cars outside apartment complex, one red

The Hunt for the Little Red Car” CC image courtesy of screenpunk on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I recently discovered that there was a name for a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing a lot in my life lately.

Its popular name seems to be the red car effect. More learned folks talk about cognitive biases and label the process selective attention or attentional bias.

These names describe the way we notice all the little red cars on the road after we’ve bought a little red car. We’re pretty sure that there weren’t this many just a few days ago, but now we can’t help seeing them everywhere.

Did all of us visit the dealer in the same week?

Or are we just now noticing the red cars because we’ve started paying more attention to them?

Our new sight isn’t just restricted to cars, or even the purely physical. Everyone seems to be talking about personal empowerment, these days. A lot of folks are into my obscure favorite band (judging by the T-shirts). Have you ever noticed how many people are speaking Polish?

My attentional bias is that I am surrounded by entrepreneurs and small business people. Where did they all come from? I was a worker bee for a long time, and hadn’t spared a thought for entrepreneurship until I started doing it myself. Now, every time I turn around so-and-so is running their own business. And I mean, I know these people. Some of them for years.

And they’ve all got great ideas that I can use. How fortuitous. What serendipity! The Universe — it’s sending me a message just when I need it!

Serendipity. Another word I have begun to look at askance, since I’ve become aware of the red car effect. Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

A happy coincidence. Or is it?

Are you paying attention?
The Universe has been giving me a lot of information lately. Sometimes in the form of repetition. The past couple of weeks, I have been struggling with a business plan. The plan looks NOTHING like what I envisioned when I started putting it together. Like the most pampered pooch on the end of an extendable leash, the business plan has its own ideas about where it wants to go. Every time I try to be practical, structured, and business-y, the dang thing keeps pulling in creativity, play, and uncertainty.

It’s as though I’m setting out to go to the Science Museum, and instead end up in a wing filled with paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Rodin.

I really like being there, too. But what does this have to do with business?

I’m annoyed. The whole point of a business plan is to be logical. I can play when I’m not trying to do business.

Enter the email. The business plan and I are playing push-me-pull-you, me wondering why our relationship isn’t working, when this message comes across the digital ether and lands in my inbox:

“So many people give up when things don’t go according to their plan. When you decide to go for something, but can’t seem to make it work, don’t back down. The path to achieving your goal may not be what you expected.” (emphasis added)

I’m pretty sure I am not the only person on Coach Jenn Lee’s email list. It would be foolish to conclude the message was written just for me. Her email composition and sending schedule has a lot more to do with her particular circumstances than with my recalcitrant un-businessy business plan.

But that’s not how I felt when I read it.

I was just wondering why my stupid business plan wasn’t conforming to, well… plan.

Is the Universe talking to me (using digital media as the messenger)? Or am I just paying more attention to little red cars?

Why this matters
Here’s the sneaky part about attentional bias. While we’re busy wondering how much new information is actually new (if you’re anything like me, that is), we suddenly have a lot we can say about red cars, little or otherwise. We are aware of the quantity and variety of makes and models, and who is driving them. Which ones are shiny and clean, which have dents in the bumper, or a license plate hanging on by one corner. We notice that there are a lot of different shades of red.

We can say a lot about personal development. Or band T-shirts, our main character’s Polish grandparents, dogs who pull on their leashes. My business plan wants to hang out with Rodin. What does that mean for how I can serve my audience?

That’s the real big deal about paying attention. It gives you information you can use.

Attentional bias. Serendipity. Coincidence. Whatever you wish to call the act of recognition, the result is that the world gets bigger.

And we can do more with it.

Have you had some serendipity in your life recently? I’d love to hear about it.

Muse Hunting

3 lists you need to get creative

author with a bust of Hans Christian Anderson in Solvang

Musing… with Hans Christian Anderson

You’re supposed to be writing.

Or making art.

You’re supposed to be being productive, anyway.

What’s happened? Cat got your brain cells?

We’ve got plenty of “shoulds” in our lives. There are self-imposed shoulds, like, “I should get up earlier” (I dislike this one). There are work-
imposed shoulds, such as, “I have a deadline today at 5pm.” There are creative shoulds, similar to this one: “I haven’t made any time to shoot pictures this week. I should really do that.”

Some shoulds are more demanding than others. We could say those shoulds have PRIORITY. That doesn’t make them any easier to accomplish than the lower-priority shoulds. In fact, sometimes that makes them harder. Or it brings out our inner five-year-old, who JUST DOESN’T WANNA!

Is today such a day for you?

For those of us in chase of the muse, I have put together the following three lists of necessities for muse hunting. Fear not. They aren’t long. Just like you can’t bake a cake without flour (I’m not saying the flour has to have gluten in it), you won’t be able to get a handle on the muse without the following ingredients. Some of the items are commonplace and easy to procure. Others may be more esoteric. These lists are NOT exhaustive. How long do you want this blog post to be?

The three lists correspond to three categories: The Tangibles, The Intangibles, and The Physique. We would be wise to think in three dimensions when hunting the muse.

Here goes.


Category 1: The Tangibles
Yes, we can touch these. No hunter or gatherer (on Earth, anyway) gets dinner by sitting in a corner to meditate. Likewise, you won’t catch the muse without

  • a pen, a pencil, a piece of paper, a camera, a paintbrush, or a computer — I mean, hello!
  • a club (thank you, Jack London)
  • a better mousetrap
  • peanut butter/chocolate/wine/cheese/cookies/Chinese food or Your Consumable of Choice
  • space — to pace around in
  • a floor — to lie on when it’s just NOT WORKING
  • the ceiling — to stare at while you’re on the floor
  • curtains — so your neighbors can’t see you dancing around in your pajamas or underwear
  • pajamas and/or underwear
  • bait. With what can we tempt the muse?

Category 2: The Intangibles
We’re not going to be successful hunters without the right attitude. Haven’t you watched enough football movies? Anybody can hold a pencil or lie on the floor. To corner the muse and truly make her ours we also need

  • time — yes, precious!
  • a closed door — do not open it. It does not lead to the castle at the center of the labyrinth.
  • a deadline — an actual one. When you miss it, you experience physical consequences. Heartburn is a physical consequence.
  • a sense of humor
  • wit
  • cunning
  • recklessness — no muse ever cared for a safe harbor
  • a willingness to get dirty
  • a flair for the dramatic
  • selfishness — MY muse, MINE!

Category 3: The Physique
All winners train. The muse doesn’t walk up to slackers and tap them on the head. The muse wants your blood, sweat, and tears. Deliver by trying some of these

  • a walk or a run
  • yoga or tai chi
  • gardening
  • cleaning out the basement
  • throwing a temper tantrum
  • washing your car
  • washing your friend’s car
  • playing with the dog and/or cat
  • dancing — which you can do with the aforementioned curtains open or closed
  • yelling, singing, or caterwauling — alone or in chorus

What have I left off the lists? What unusual sources have you visited to find your muse-hunting tools? Let me know in the comments.

Happy hunting!