Monday, October 3, 2011

Words People Use

Early in my career my job involved administering a union contract, one that had a protection clause that was somewhat controversial.  Management called it “comparison” and the union and workers called it “regression.”  You only had to listen to the choice of words to tell where the speaker stood on the issue.

Since then I have become sensitive to the way others use words to try to influence me as I try to make rational decisions politically and economically.  In politics it’s more transparent, for example, some talking about inheritance tax and others about death tax, but there are a few in advertising that seem subtler.

One that is especially widespread is the substitution of the word home for house.  In general usage, a house is a structure where people might live.  A home on the other hand connotes something more personal, defined in one source as “the place in which one's domestic affections are centered.”  Accordingly realtors don’t sell houses any more; they sell homes.  We are enticed to look for new homes at a parade of homes.  It was a very clever marketing strategy to get buyers to think of the touchy-feely aspects of the transaction and react emotionally to “the home of your dreams” or to fall in love with a home, but it seems to have caught on everywhere.  I rarely hear people referring to the places where they live as their house.  It’s their home, and they may have a second home or a vacation home somewhere.  They buy homeowner’s insurance in case it burns down.  I wouldn’t be surprised if soon they don’t have a dog home in the back yard with a bird home hanging from the tree!  Does “the American dream of owning a home” imply that an apartment or rental property cannot be made into a home with love and care?  The real estate industry probably hopes so.  This has become so widespread that I recently saw a religious wall hanging saying, “Bless this home”, rather than using the traditional wording of house.

Of course there are others trying to change our vocabulary to their advantage including:  car dealers selling pre-owned cars as if to imply that someone only owned it for a while, but didn’t really use it; executives calling us associates instead of employees, then going out of their way not to associate with most of us – too important/busy for that; or restaurants and hotels calling us guests instead of customers.  (Well, if I’m your guest, why are you making me pay?)  I received a survey from a restaurant asking me to compare them to other “rapid service” establishments.  Maybe the term they used was “swift service,” but it definitely wasn’t “fast food”!  Good luck with that one!

It’s all a ploy to get us to switch off our Critical Thinking mechanism long enough to slip one by us.  I’d rather see the actions/results that they are trying to portray with these words than the fancy marketing terminology.

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