Euphemism at the Dorchester

Last week I was invited to dinner at China Tang, the restaurant located in the basement of the Dorchester Hotel in London´s Mayfair. To go in, one has to negotiate the hotel’s famous Promenade Bar. It was a Friday evening, so every one of the bar’s plump sofas overflowed with guests and the jazz trio was in full syncopation. My host and I had to squeeze up against a wall to make way for a rather corpulent middle-aged businessman coming from the opposite direction. With his arms, he ushered two attractive young women. Thanks to ridiculously high heels, they towered above him, and both wore blushingly short mini-skirts. My host looked across at me after they had passed.

“His nieces,” he whispered.

“Yes, there seem to be a lot of nieces here, “I replied.

“At my hotel,” he smiled, “nieces aren’t allowed.”

It was only when we were leaving the restaurant a couple of hours later and had to cross the increasingly crowded bar for a second time did I realise quite how many ‘nieces’ there really were. I also recognised how powerful our earlier euphemistic exchange had been in allowing us to totally disengage from what we were witnessing.

This is exactly the same neutralisation technique that perpetrators of distasteful behaviour, and the silent witnesses of these deeds, use to maintain their self-perception of moral integrity: they completely avoid any recognition of what is really going on.  We use this technique when we speak about troops ‘lost’ to ‘friendly fire’ or about firms ‘downsizing’. It dehumanises one’s perception of the victim and reduces the recognition of harm. Some historical atrocities, for instance, have been described as ‘cleansing’ or ‘resettlement’. On a more banal corporate level, it is also the technique used to perpetuate fraud. Theft is simply re-labelled ‘drinking from the fountain’ or ‘taking a bite of the apple’; accountants are ‘creative’. Indeed, whether one is perpetrating mass murder, witnessing corporate fraud our simply crossing a hotel lobby, the euphemism is the tool that allows us to disconnect from what we know to be true, and to render the act harmless.

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