Using euphemism to cushion the blow of request rejections

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A reader whom I’ll identify here only by the initials DMP sent me the following letter early this week:“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 don’t need to provide specific information on why their applications are being approved or rejected. However, there are instances when customers demand an explanation, and we are then required to elaborate. This often makes me very uncomfortable especially when the reasons are sensitive in nature, such as 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?”

My reply to DMP:
When turning down somebody’s service application, you’ll need to say it in something other than plain, simple, and forthright English. You can take recourse to euphemistic language, or an agreeable or inoffensive statement that won’t suggest something unpleasant. This is nothing less than applied diplomacy—the handling of tough situations without arousing hostility—and it’s an art form that has to be learned and practiced 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 must 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 granted the request.

I trust that these thoughts will be of help to you in fashioning your service rejection letters.

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Another reader, Mr. Rosauro Feliciano, expressed his appreciation for my column last week on the perfect tenses in the passive voice, then asked if he should use “if” or “had” in this sentence: “My son would have been an alumnus of the PMA class of 2007 (if, had) he was not sent to West Point after the plebe year at PMA.” He also asked if that sentence is constructed correctly.

My reply to Mr. Feliciano:

That sentence is in the past-perfect conditional form of the passive voice, and it can be constructed in two ways.

Using “if”: “My son would have been an alumnus of the PMA class of 2007 if he had not been sent to West Point after the plebe year at PMA.”

Or using “had”: “My son would have been an alumnus of the PMA class of 2007 had he not been sent to West Point after the plebe year at PMA.”

The construction using “had” is my personal preference because I find it more elegant and better sounding.

For a more comprehensive discussion of sentences of this type, I suggest you check out this posting of mine in the Forum: “Do better than a calculated guess in handling conditional sentences” (http://tinyurl.com/l8mjhl8).

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Find me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. -j8carillo@yahoo.com

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