The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 30, 2013

Krohn column: Put me in coach, I'm ready to work


The Mankato Free Press

---- — If you've been partaking in the holiday shopping rush, you may have noticed there aren't many store "clerks" anymore.

They are store "associates," or "team members" and sometimes "sales assistants."

Euphemisms have been around since before the writing of the Bible, when sex meant a man "knew" a woman and someone "returned to the earth," rather than got buried.

Sometimes the indirect words have staying power over time, like "being intimate" for having sex.

Many attempts simply don't catch on. Years ago there was a needed push to change terms used for those with various disabilities, after medical terms like retardation were turned into mean-spirited epithets.

Many of the alternative descriptions are now in common use, but others died on the vine. I remember a push to get the public and newspapers to use "differently abled" to describe someone with a disability — an idea that was quickly rejected.

Other euphemisms are moving targets over time. "Gay" and "queer" were hurled with hatred toward homosexuals, until the words were taken back by advocates of same-sex relationships. It was such a successful effort that we could have a popular prime-time TV show called "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

But more than anyone else, businesses have excelled in euphemisms.

Sometimes it's to obfuscate the truth. Reading the job descriptions in help-wanted ads can leave you wondering what the company really means.

"We treat our team members like family," might well mean, "We're backbiting, dysfunctional and lie to each other, just like real families."

"Ability to manage multiple projects," probably translates to, "We are in constant crisis management and will blame you if you can't do the impossible."

When companies began firing large numbers of people to cut expenses a host of euphemisms arose, from "downsizing" and "realignment," to "rightsizing" and — my favorite — "career change opportunities."

Often the euphemisms are for job titles. Recruiters are "talent supply specialists" and a supervisor is a "team leader."

I recently heard a business title I hadn't heard before. The store didn't have a manager and assistant managers. It had "assistant coaches" and a "head coach."

The new titles are aimed at boosting morale and making people feel better about their jobs. Sometimes it works. Other times it probably just makes employees feel like they have a silly title.

We in the newspaper industry have seen a lot of technology-driven title changes in recent years, after a couple of centuries of being perfectly comfortable with descriptions such as "subscribers, editors, reporters and pressmen."

We're the "Free Press Media" now, not just "The Free Press," and subscribers are now "members" — a nod to the fact we don't just put out a newspaper, but magazines, a web site, Facebook page and Twitter feeds and people don't just subscribe to a paper but find us in a variety of ways.

The Internet and other technology have reached beyond terminology in the news business. More people read us on the web now and even the ink we use has changed. The new soy-based ecologically friendly ink doesn't smudge like it used to. Which I miss. It was nice to see people all over town with ink stains on their fingers and shirts, knowing they'd read the paper that morning.

(Sometimes I like to get old newspapers out of the file room, crumble them up and rub them all over my computer and smartphone screens just to smudge them with ink. It makes me feel better.)

So far, luckily, the terms "editors" and "reporters" haven't changed here at the Free Press Media. Although there are some disturbing trends creeping into the news business. I've seen terms like "multi-media communications specialists" used to describe those who gather information for the public.

No thanks.

"Ink-stained reporter" is fine for this curmudgeon.

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 344-6383.