We all know what Don Vito Corleone — perhaps better known as the Godfather — really meant when he said his famous line: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” He meant, when his godson approached him for help securing a part in a new movie, that he would threaten the director’s life. The plan wasn’t to negotiate, or offer up a big pile of cash; when the director wakes up a bit later in the movie to find a horse’s head in his bed, the message is clear.
Why bother with euphemisms and symbols, though? This wasn’t a question of masking the truth: Don Corleone knew what the offer would be, and so did his complicit godson. But opting for more coded language, like couching a life-or-death ultimatum as an “offer,” can accomplish things that the more direct route — “Do what I want, or die” — cannot.
Language is meant for communication, but communicating doesn’t always mean saying exactly what we mean. Beating around the bush serves a valuable purpose: Not only can it ease potentially awkward social situations, but it also lets people get away with things they otherwise wouldn’t. Past research in psychology and linguistics suggests this is because vague or indirect speech obscures people’s intentions, setting them up for plausible deniability down the line. And results from our own research indicate that indirect speech also serves a more personal purpose, helping people to preserve a positive moral self-image even in the face of wrongdoing — which, in turn, may actually facilitate bad behavior.
In our study, published in 2015 in the journal Cognitive Science, we asked participants to judge four hypothetical scenarios in which a person — in some cases themselves, in other cases a stranger — makes a small-scale unethical proposition, like bribing a host at a crowded restaurant to seat them more quickly. Participants rated the likelihood that the person in the scenario would make an indirect proposition (“Hey, any chance we can get some great service tonight?”) versus a direct proposition (“Hey, any chance I can pay you to get seated early?”). Participants also judged how likely they would be to get away with it, and how morally permissible it would be to make each proposition.
When the person in the scenario phrased their request in an indirect way, we found, participants were more likely to say they wouldn’t be judged for making it, regardless of whether they were imagining themselves or someone else in the role. But importantly, perceptions of morality predicted the likelihood of unethical behavior only for the self: In another part of the study, participants said they would be more likely to engage in unethical acts presented indirectly versus directly (“checking your answers” versus “cheating”). When participants judged the act to be morally permissible, they were also more likely to say they’d do it, but the same link wasn’t nearly as strong when they had to judge whether a stranger would.
Taken together, the results suggest that unethical behavior becomes easier when we perceive our own actions in indirect terms, which makes things that we would otherwise balk at seem a bit more palatable. In other words, deploying indirect speech doesn’t just help us evade blame from others — it also helps us to convince ourselves that unethical acts aren’t so bad after all.
That’s not to say that this is a conscious process. A speaker who shrouds his harmful intentions in indirect speech may understand that this will help him hold on to his standing in the public eye, or maintain his reputation among those closest to him — a useful tactic when those intentions are likely to be condemned or fall outside the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. But that same speaker may be unaware of just how much their indirect speech is easing their own psyche, too. It’s easy to understand how a person might naturally gravitate toward euphemism in that situation: Naming the bad behavior forces you to confront it — but if, on the other hand, you avoid calling it by its real name, you don’t have to grapple with the guilt or angst to the same extent. Indirect speech allows us to feel better about things we should feel badly about. And the better we feel about acting immorally, the easier it becomes to do it again.