As it turns out, that's not recommended

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According to Adrien Chen, "Working at the Apple Store: Tales from the Inside", Gawker 6/16/2011:

Apple employees are banned from saying "unfortunately" when delivering bad news to a customer, urged instead to replace it with the more positive "as it turns out." And management apparently takes the ban seriously: One former Apple employee tells us that his coworker was put under a 90-day probationary period because he said "unfortunately" too much at the Genius Bar.

As it turns out, "unfortunately" is just one of a number of "stop words" that are not supposed to pass an Apple Store employee's lips. One Apple Store employee, who was fired in 2009 after two years, writes:

There was a whole class we took about things not to say, and what to say instead. One of my favorites was to resist the urge to say "That's stupid" or "That wasn't smart" and replace it with "That's not recommended" – For example, you say "I took my iPod swimming and now it don't work" I say "Ah, that's not recommended" when I mean "That was really stupid".

I believe that I'll try this approach in the comments section.



45 Comments

  1. STW said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    My personal favorite is "unfortunate" as in, "That's an unfortunate outfit she is wearing."
    The subject of such a statement often has more skin than their clothing allows or, not unrelated, excruciating taste.

  2. Kristin said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    That's "unfortunate." I trust companies more when they're honest with me and use candid language. If the situation sucks, tell me it sucks. The "not recommended" one does make me laugh though, even if we should be told when the things we do are stupid.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    That's not recommended

    I tend to say, "That probably wasn't the best thing to do."

  4. Peter said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    Finding a euphemism instead of saying “that’s stupid” to a customer is hardly vocabulary-policing; it’s simple politeness! (And it’s also easy to forget that what’s basic common sense to many of us might be new and arcane for someone buying their first computer.)

    On the other hand, in less obvious examples like the “unfortunately” ban, I wonder if they’re based on real data about how customers react to them, or just things that started as one manager’s peeve, sounded plausible as cod psychology, and snowballed into corporate guidelines?

  5. Dan Achibald said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    For what it's worth, I've found the customer service at Apple Stores to be really good. I don't know how much word bans have to do with it, but they've done a good job of teaching the folks who work there to treat customers like VIPs. As the Gawker article puts it:

    Based on what we heard, the Apple Store seems like a great place to work if you are capable of stowing your ill will, cynicism, frustration and impatience—i.e. humanity—into a little box at the start of each work day and fawn over a stream of idiotic customers without complaint.

    Yeah, since I'm the "idiotic customer" I appreciate being fawned over. Isn't that called good salesmanship?

  6. Jason said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    Does anyone ever tell a customer "that was stupid" and get away with it?

    As a salesman that's not recommended.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    @Jason: I think the point isn't that Apple salesmen aren't supposed to say "that was stupid", but that Apple has week-long training classes where its salesmen learn not to say it (and learn exactly what to say instead).

  8. Ø said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    It may be that a Genius for high-tech matters does not correlate well with a genius for diplomacy. This would explain the special need for guidance of those working at the Bar, but not the rigid nature of this guidance.

    By the way, LL once covered another less than honest use of "it turns out".

    [(myl) Coverage here. Note the difference, though: the academic "it turns out that" can be a way to use presumed technical authority to get the audience to accept a proposition that may in fact not be how it turns out at all; the retail "as it turns out" is a way to avoid having the sales or service rep indicate a negative evaluation of the way it has in fact turned out.]

  9. D said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    Not so sure I would prefer "as it turns out" as opposed to "unfortunately" when being given bad news from customer service. "Unfortunately" hints of at least a small amount of sympathy, while "as it turns out" sounds arrogant and uncaring.

  10. Maintainer said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    @peter: I imagine it's a single store. I've been to plenty of Apple stores and have been told how unfortunate things were by many Apple employees. I hate how obnoxious and patronizing that word sounds, I think I'd rather be told: "as it turns out we can't replace the iPod that you found in the sewer."

  11. KevinM said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    The reasons for not calling a customer "stupid" are obvious. Could "unfortunately" be banned because helplessness in the face of blind fortuna is contrary to Apple's tech ethos? If your computer is malfunctioning, it may well be that you are just one of the unlucky ones. But it sounds so much more scientific to say "it turns out." It implies "we've discovered the problem," as opposed to "hey, too bad for you."

  12. Christophe said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    Really, if someone feels that their creativity and personal expression is being constrained by not calling a customer or their behavior "stupid," they probably should reconsider a career in face-to-face retail.

    I instituted a ban on phrases of the form "as I said," or "as it says on our website," or similar. It's just defensive, and the last thing a frustrated customer needs from a company is defensiveness.

  13. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    Several months ago we had a fairly terrible mandatory workshop on "Serving Internal Customers". About the only thing I got out of it was a useful new euphemism for use with obstreperous coworkers: "Help me to understand you." Much less likely to result in disciplinary action than, "I have one nerve left and you're on it, you pigheaded moron."

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    Diplomacy is not my strong point, but I do my best, which is sometimes not good enough. I would never have been so rude as to call a customer stupid, but occasionally I would describe a customer’s course of action as foolish. To my ears, it is far more acceptable to be told that one has done something foolish (to have acted unwisely on one occasion) than to be told that one is stupid (lacking intelligence, permanently). But I quickly learned that to many customers, foolish is taken as the bigger insult of the two.

    Have no fear – I am now retired.

  15. John Lawler said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    Note that this construction (or perhaps it will turn out to be a related construction) has been discussed in LL before.

  16. Tom S. Fox said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    I have a better idea: If you don’t want your employees to say “unfortunately” so often, make sure your products aren’t crap!

  17. D.O. said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    ill will, cynicism, frustration and impatience—i.e. humanity

    This is very stupid (no scratch that) unfortunate (ah, scratch that too) somewhat primitive (is that allowed?) view of humanity.

  18. Dave B said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    I believe such corporate thesauruses are common. I used to work at Google. In customer-facing emails we were forbidden to describe a problem as "bugs". They were "technical issues".

    A sample of our interaction with customers (phones, emails) were screened and marked, and you would lose points if you used the wrong phrase.

  19. Dave B said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    * describe "problems", not "a problem". (Proofread!)

  20. John Lawler said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    @D.O. I agree it's a very inaccurate view of humanity — at least the desirable parts of humanity. But desirability is a matter of taste, and de gustibus non disputandum est. Somebody has to find soap operas enjoyable, after all.

  21. Stan said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    I can see forensic internetter/-ing gaining currency. For example, the recent controversy in the UK over Johann Hari's interviewing methods led to a great deal of forensic internetting: selecting and dissecting text, searching for matches, comparing and highlighting. It could also be considered part of "public opinion channelling".

  22. Elizabeth said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    "As it turns out" seems so awkward to me. Like there's no reason my doohickey malfunctioned – it just happened, isn't that strange??

    I hate this kind of cold, manipulative corporate speech. I have a job making coffee, and we're similarly (though less rigorously) policed. We can't offer "breakfast sandwiches," though that's the only quick way to describe them to customers – nix that, I meant guests. We can't mention our chocolate without pointing out that it's real, melted chocolate. And our beverages – even the drip brew – are "handcrafted."

    Guess what? Customers know that you're playing them. They're not going to buy extra thingamajigs or triple chocolate just because you're using constant promotional language. They're just going to feel like employees are pushy salesmen not allowed to relate authentically to their customers. This micromanaging of language really, really irks me, both as a customer and an employee.

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    The most mystifying euphemism I have encountered is "bless X heart", for X in ("your", "his", "her"). Instead of replacing the offending expression, it is simply appended, and all is forgiven.

    Compare:
    – "Your daughter is such a whore."
    – "Your daughter is such a whore, bless her heart."

    Are there any similar constructions in English, or in any language?

  24. John Burgess said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    @Nathan Myers: 'Bless X heart' (or, more snarkily, 'Bless X's pointy little head') is a US Southern regionalism. It may be traveling, however. Amtrak trains may not be ideal transportation, but they do criss-cross the country.

  25. Martin J Ball said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    @John Burgess: very common throughout British English, to the point of being irritating in some people I know!! :) (bless their hearts)

  26. bloix said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    Nathan Myers – my boss says, "God love him/her," when he means that the person he's talking about is an idiot.
    "Who let that report go out the door?"
    "Jack."
    "Oh, Jack, God love him."

  27. Ross Presser said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

    This showed up in a science fiction book, The Mote In God's Eye, in 1974:

    Renner: Wrong!
    Blaine: The tactful way, the polite way to disagree with the Senator would be to say, 'That turns out not to be the case.'
    Renner: Hey, I like that. Anyway, the Senator's wrong.

    Also mentioned here.

  28. Martha said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    But it sounds so much more scientific to say "it turns out." It implies "we've discovered the problem," as opposed to "hey, too bad for you."
    This is one reason why "it turns out" doesn't seem to me to be a good thing to say, at least in some situations. "It turns out we can't refund your money" makes it sound either like the employee just found out that the customer's money can't be refunded, in which case a lot of people would want to deal with someone who was more familiar with the company's policies, or else it makes it sound like the employee has a "hey, I just work here" attitude, which is an unfavorable attitude, at least in the customer service areas I've worked in.

  29. Martha said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

    Oh, sorry. The first two lines from my above comment are a quote.

  30. un malpaso said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    I think that doctors and physicians should start using this technique too.

    "Mr. Smith, as it turns out, you have cancer."

    "Oh! Sounds like better news than I expected!"

  31. Xmun said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

    When my sister in the UK, a clerical wife, says "bless her heart" after telling us about some stupid thing that someone has done, we understand it to mean "what a bloody fool!"

  32. mkehrt said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 1:42 am

    This discussion reminds me of this, from Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye:

    "Wrong," said Renner.

    "The tactful way," Rod said quietly, "the polite way to disagree with the Senator would be to say, 'That turns out not to be the case.'"

  33. Laura said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 6:01 am

    'Unfortunately' is already over-used in an odd corporate way. I recently had a voucher for a restaurant that said that 'unfortunately', it couldn't be used at weekends and at various other times. It just sounds weird – I want to say to them: you make the terms, if you think it's unfortunate, change them! It gives the impression that you wish things were otherwise, but that's the way it is.

    'As it turns out' doesn't seem to me to replace this usage well at all, but it does have the same kind of non-responsibility aspect, but with added 'who knew?'.

  34. Owen said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    I think it's less of a problem with being in "sales" – even though the Apple Store is definitely a retail establishment – and more a problem with the IT career. People in IT know more than the average folks – that's how we got into the career in the first place. And there are different strata of knowledge within IT, from the folks in Apple and Best Buy dealing with consumer electronics and lording their knowledge over the ignorant masses, to IT folks embedded in large companies who almost speak a different language. But the issue is really that there's a distinct lack of social intelligence amongst IT in general. Apple's just trying to fight against that.

  35. The Ridger said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    @Eric P Smith: As it turns out, "fool" is a particularly nasty insult to a rather large subset of American (perhaps all) Christians, so it's never safe.

  36. bianca steele said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    When I was in middle school or thereabouts, I used "mote" in a Scrabble game and was challenged. I didn't know the word except from magazine ads for the novel. The dictionary we used to check, a pocket Webster's, didn't have it. (One of the players who challenged me is now an NLP/computational linguistics researcher.)

    It turns out that "unfortunately" and "stupid" are words I've heard used by coworkers in annoying ways. Young male techies (to generalize) may be especially prone to overuse "stupid". ("You have to explicitly print a form feed after your file? *That's* stupid!" "The print command is called 'qprint'? That's stupid!") And "unfortunately" can be used in a way that somehow conveys that if you were luckier, you wouldn't be having this problem.

  37. ohwilleke said,

    July 8, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    I would be delighted if the Apple euphemism police could offer sessions for lawyers in continuing education classes and law students. Breaking bad news in ways that don't make the idiots who brought it about feel bad or getting people to acknowledge a problem without acknowledging wrong doing are part of a lawyer's stock in trade but something that is almost never formally taught.

  38. maidhc said,

    July 9, 2011 @ 3:19 am

    As it turns out, we have been blocking your email without telling you.

    As it turns out, we sometimes ask the Secret Service to confiscate our customer's computer.

  39. CT said,

    July 10, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    As it turns out or not, if the customer was always right and never did anything that's not recommended, they'd never need tech support……

    Ok, I like my original better:

    Unfortunately or not, if the customer was always right and never did anything stupid, they;d never need tech support……..

  40. Robert said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    Do they also say "Definitely" and "Up to a point" instead of yes and no?

  41. Mood management of customers — Marginal Revolution said,

    July 13, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    [...] is more.  Elsewhere, inspiration from Minnesota may motivate the median voter and help resolve the [...]

  42. Travis said,

    July 13, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    Someone once told me that when you use "but" as a conjunction, it usually negates everything you've said before it (ie, "I don't want to offend anyone, but…") and therefore shuts down conversation. He recommended using "and" instead, because it builds on.

    "Unfortunately" has the same effect: it signals to the listener that whatever has just been discussed has been negated, or that the message overall is bad. This is not a preferable situation for a customer service worker.

    I would prefer if we were able to get rid of odd and often off-putting sentence introductions altogether, such as "actually," "technically," "obviously," and "if you think about it." Hate them!

  43. Richard Hershberger said,

    July 13, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

    Fortunately, I would have no difficulty were I forbidden from using "unfortunately." I would simply substitute "alas." For particularly distressing circumstances I would go long form: "Alas and alack!"

  44. Episode 3 – As It Turns Out… « Dining with Druids said,

    July 14, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    [...] "As it turns out, that's not recommended," by Mark Liberman, Language Log [...]

  45. Kedarnath said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    As Martha indicated earlier the correct use of "…it turns out that…" comes from Physics and Mathematics lecture halls. For example, it would be legit to tell fnal year school students in their Math class: "Despite seeming so different it turns out that co-ordinate geometry in two dimensions is equivalent in some ways to algebraic equations in two variables."
    There are are surely better euphemisms available to sales staff? Or is it that Steve Jobs can't shed his techie past?

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