Get to the Point has preached that when you try to sound clever but don’t really understand the phrases you are using, you risk offending the message recipient. We previously told you about the lawyer who thought calling someone “infamous” was flattering. (It’s not.)
Don’t Choose the Holocaust
Stay away from shortcut, cutesy or slang expressions about hot-button issues such as racism, sexual harassment or the Holocaust.
A recent article appallingly described a traveler with multiple, equally attractive vacation options as facing a “Sophie’s Choice.” No, no, no, no, no.
In William Styron’s award-winning novel, Sophie is imprisoned in Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, with her two children. On arrival, a guard tells her she must surrender one of the children. In a vain attempt to keep one of her children, Sophie chooses the other for immediate death. Later in the book, she makes another life-or-death choice. Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sophie in the movie.
How about calling having to make a choice among alternatives — uh, let’s think about this— “choosing among alternatives” or “deciding”? If the choice is between unattractive alternatives, it’s a “dilemma.”
The lucky traveler had to choose a vacation destination, not feel complicit in a murder.
While We’re Talking About Choices
You may have seen or used a Hobson’s choice as a negotiation tactic. The point of a Hobson’s choice is that it is “take it or leave it,” often not much of a choice at all. Most lawyers’ negotiation demands and offers fall in this category. A number is put on the table. The option is to accept or lose the deal, perhaps to go to trial with the attendant cost and delay. For some clients, any deal is better than the alternative.
This phrase originated over 350 years ago. Hobson was in the rent-a-horse business. He had a lot of horses for rent, but customers could only “choose” the horse closest to the stable door. This allowed Hobson to manage wear-and-tear on his animals. A would-be horse lessee might want that sleek black beauty, but be forced to take the sway-backed gray or nothing.
You can call out your negotiating opponent as having done nothing more than present a Hobson’s choice. If you’re accused of this behavior, you’ll know what the expression means. Rather than parse arguments, probably the more productive approach is to try to expand the options so there is an array of choices, such as altering the form or timing of payment.
The best way to describe a choice or decision is to call it a choice or decision. If you feel your prose is getting tiresome or repetitious, bring out the thesaurus. But don’t get hyperbolic unless you are dealing with an extreme situation where that provocative phrase is truly applicable.