Smooth is a good word—if you want to describe flattening something, getting rid of lumps. It’s not such a good word when it’s used instead of something more accurate. As it increasingly is.
Today I saw two examples today of descriptive avoidance. In both, the verb smooth is used as a way of taking the emotional heat out of difficult, even desperate, experiences of other people.
The first is from an academic analysis of Uber drivers.
Uber’s driver-partners also often cited the desire to smooth fluctuations in their income as a reason for partnering with Uber.
Ah, that’s it goes in struggling households. Not, “I need a job, we’re desperate, drowning, we’ve got to get some more income”. But, “Hmm, I sense that our income fluctuation needs smoothing. I’ll partner with someone.”
To be fair, analytic euphemisms are to be expected in research paper abstracts. It’s a tradition. But there’s no need for it in everyday speech. In the following, a community councillor was speaking sympathetically to a reporter about people in poverty, depending on charity handouts.
“They’re reliant on the food banks to smooth out the peaks and the troughs.”
Earlier in the paragraph the same speaker contradicts this controlled, rational description. “One girl came to me in tears,” he said. Quite. People in tears are desperate, at their wits end, They’re not calmly ironing out lumpy bits of their lives.
I don’t think that an intent to deceive lies behind these examples. But they do have the effect of misrepresenting what they set out to describe. It’s not just a harmless verbal upgrade, like a police officer “exiting premises” rather than “leaving the house”. It’s missing an opportunity to describe things as they are. It’s using language to mask a reality. At worst, it’s distancing and dehumanising.