Many organizations, especially businesses, make heavy use of euphemisms when communicating on sensitive issues. We explore whether the use of euphemisms, as opposed to equivalent plain terms, influences the moral judgments made by recipients of these messages, notably pertaining to (un)ethical behaviors in corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices. Using six ethical and unethical scenarios in a between-subjects experiment, we find four main results. First, individuals judge ethical actions more favorably when they are presented in euphemistic terms versus in plain terms. Second, euphemisms increase the acceptability of unethical CSR practices, which are judged to be significantly less unethical when described using euphemistic terms relative to plain terms. Third, most examined euphemisms are found to increase (respectively, decrease) the likelihood of stated willingness to sign a petition supporting (respectively, denouncing) the considered practices. Fourth, euphemisms remain effective for respondents who view firms as hypocritical.
Let’s call a spade a spade, not a gardening tool’: How euphemisms shape moral judgement in corporate social responsibility domains
24 November 2021