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Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid: New Documentary Reminds Us to Avoid Potentially Offensive Phrases

By Theda C. Snyder

Language should be powerful, even evocative, to get your point across. But using upsetting or offensive phrases is no way to persuade your audience.

The program speaker touted his product and encouraged listeners to purchase it at their expo booth. Upon exiting the room, a significant number of attendees queued up to do just that.

“Wow,” said an observer. “They really drank the Kool-Aid.”

That’s a phrase that upsets many listeners.

Horrific Origin of Flip Expressions

Get To The Point has previously counseled against using expressions when you don’t know the origin. For example, some writers and speakers have referred to any dilemma as a “Sophie’s Choice.” In the bestselling novel and award-winning movie, upon arriving at Auschwitz concentration camp, Sophie had to choose which of her two children to immediately surrender to a Nazi. Disrespectful references to the Holocaust can undercut your message and offend the recipient.

Similarly, some words or phrases are so offensive that most people will not mention them in any context. Forget the offensive words your favorite rapper uses; avoid the N-word entirely. And do not utter the misogynistic C-word no matter how high emotions are running.

New Docuseries Raises Awareness

The new Hulu docuseries “Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown” renews public awareness of the more than 900 people who died in 1978 as a result of participating in a homicidal cult.

The communal living experiment in Guyana was failing economically. In response to constituent concerns, Congressman Leo Ryan arrived on a fact-finding mission. As Ryan’s delegation was departing, Jones ordered his guards to shoot, murdering Ryan and severely injuring one of his aides.

Jones then ordered his adherents to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Cult members used Flavor-Aid, a powdered drink mix akin to the better-known Kool-Aid, to create a tub of grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide and other poisons. Jones ordered cult members to drink. Those who resisted, especially once they saw others dying, were injected. More than 900 people died.

To “drink the Kool-Aid” signifies someone’s unthinking acceptance of a dangerous message. Jonestown survivors and those who knew the victims have a severe reaction to an offhand use of the phrase.

There’s Always an Alternative

You never know the complete background of the message recipient. Upsetting or insulting a listener is no way to communicate persuasively.

Metaphorical cliches can be a shorthand way to describe a concept. That’s great, but be sure you know the origin of the phrase you use so blithely.

Instead of trying to be clever, the better choice may be precision. “I urge the jury to critically examine those assertions” is safer than “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

Read: “Avoid Clichés? As If!


Order of Adjectives

More Writing Tips

Find more good ideas for improving your legal writing and communications skills in “Get to the Point” by Teddy Snyder.

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Teddy Snyder Theda C. Snyder

Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates civil disputes, workers’ compensation and insurance coverage cases, including COVID-19 related coverage disputes, in person or by video. Teddy has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and is the author of four ABA books, including “Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips, 4th Edition” as well as “Personal Injury Case Evaluation” available on Amazon.com. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at SnyderMediations.com and on Twitter @SnyderMediation.

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