Are we wasting the uniquely human gift of language?

Over the last few years, I have attended many conferences and read lots of blogs from people who do not want research participants to talk. These writers and speakers (oh the irony!) say that researchers cannot ask people what they are thinking, because people don’t know what their unconscious or non-conscious minds are doing.  

There is some truth to this of course  as none of us has introspective access to the entire complex cognitive machinery we use for perception, motivation, emotion, cognition and memory but it overstates the problem to a ludicrous extent. It also suits technology providers to try to turn our profession into a collection of observers and image collectors on the basis that now people have smart phones, they take lots of photos.  You know what: they use them for talking and texting too!

What we know about language

People like talking and writing. If an ethnographer arrived from Mars to observe the human race probably the first thing it would notice is that people talk. People talk on their phones, talk face to face, and write to each other on social media. Teenagers love talking and texting as do parents at the school gate, office colleagues, consultants having a ‘coffee catch up’ with potential clients, neighbours at a BBQ, conference presenters - and people participating  in market and social research . We all like to chat. Most people, even shy people, like talking or writing to each other.

Talking and writing help us think. In English, we have terms like ‘talking it through’, ‘speaking your mind’, and ‘speaking the same language’ all of which capture the idea that the process of talking helps people think. This is because language forces us to make distinctions between things.

‘When we call something edible, we distinguish it from – implicitly, automatically – all other things that are not edible” (The Organized Mind. Daniel J Levin.)

As Levin also points out, it is through language that humans implicitly make a distinction between ‘now’ and ‘not now’, by having different words for the present, the past and the future.  Without a word for the past, would we recognise ‘regret’ as an emotion?

Words are ‘an unspoken window’ into ways of thinking and behaving.  To quote Wendy Gordon in her new book Mind Frames: ‘Talking about the refugee crisis in terms of ‘swarms’, 'malingerers', ‘economic migrants’ or ‘terrorists’ paints a very different picture – and generates very different emotional feelings – from using words like ‘mass migration across Europe’, ‘asylum seekers’, or ‘people escaping unthinkable violence' or ‘orphans’. 

Three ways to analyse language implicitly

As Daniel Levin implied, analysing how language works reveals – implicitly – how people think about something. In contrast, analysing language explicitly means finding out what people are talking about. We gave some examples in an earlier post 

We call this ‘reading between the words’ 

How can researchers analyse what people are thinking rather than just what they are saying?

First analyse word choice and consider the words not used. For example, in this piece I have used the word ‘people’ not ‘consumers’ because the word ‘consumers’ silently, implicitly and automatically limits our thinking.  As I have written elsewhere ‘If people are ‘consumers’ who are they when they are not consuming anything? The idea seems absurd as if all a person is and does is what they consume. It is risky for researchers and marketers to categorise people in this two-dimensional way as ‘consumers’ because it ignores whole areas of life. (

Treat language as discourse. Again to quote Wendy Gordon

“Different professionals and disciplines have particular discourses and so do organisations, companies, groups and facilities. These develop over time and become so normal they are invisible to those on the outside. ..."

One way to do this is to analyse the metaphors used. For example, conducting this kind of discourse analysis we were able to show one of our clients that their workplace discourse used many aggressive words like “barrage” and “hammered by phone calls” despite their public statements about being friendly and respectful.

Similarly, it struck me recently that American English has many more phrases about people talking too much than British English does and the language style is different. American idioms were about ‘beating gums’ and ‘shooting the breeze’ (I am not sure what that means), for what in British English might be the milder and friendlier “chatterbox”.

Reach beyond word clouds. 

Word clouds have become a popular way for researchers to summarise ‘what people said’. They actually summarise only ‘what people said explicitly’ and do not begin to capture what was implied in what was said. This happens because word clouds strip the word from the sentence that gives it its meaning. In this example, the word cloud implies the importance of ‘time’ at Christmas. 

However, all the word cloud did was count the frequency of the word ‘time’ as it appeared in the transcript -  including all these different uses of the word:

  • The first time
  • The only time
  • It’s that time of year
  • The peak of Xmas delivery times
  • An honest attempt for everyone to truly spend the time together.

If you are interested in understanding your  organisation’s discourse, or the discourse of your competitors, or of the people who buy your products and services, call Sue on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Above all don’t waste the uniquely human gift – language

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