Say What!? Finding Meaning In Language
As Elton John once said, the Stitch is back. What better way to kick off a thrilling year than a nerd-out on language and meaning.
Recently, we worked with frontline health workers in rural Somaliland to prototype a training curriculum. Volunteers were asked to come up with a metaphor for vaccination that would resonate with their neighbors and families. The training group’s top pick? “Vaccination is like a man with a bow protecting his goat from a hyena.” Talk about context!
It got us thinking: how the languages we speak, the words we choose, and what we think we’re saying can be strikingly different from what the people we’re trying to reach actually understand. If it sounds like social and behaviour change 101, it should.
But there’s more to it than that. Language provides a mental map that we all draw on to interpret and share our experiences and relationship to the world. So what does it mean when we all have different maps? Can we resonate more effectively with people if we better understand their mental and linguistic topography? We dig-in in the Spotlight section (catch that English idiom?).
This is Common Thread’s second year, and 2019 is already looking exciting with new partners, clients, countries and a few new Associates we hope to introduce you to in the coming months.
In the meantime, leave your goat with us. We’ve got your back.
– Mike and Sherine
Spotlight on Finding More Meaning In Language
& What’s lost in translation
Language is critical for how we process the world around us. Communication is one part of this, but not the whole story.
The oft-debated Sapir-Whorf hypothesis goes as far as saying that our worldviews are shaped by the languages we speak and the words we have to describe it (see Chomsky and other linguistic universalists for a response). George Lakoff argued that how languages use different cultural metaphors reveals something valuable about how speakers of that language think. Think about how English likens time with money (time is saved and spent and invested). Other languages liken “up” with good and bad with “down.”
Marketing companies have long-understood the power of language, and how it could be used to communicate complex behaviour, and even create new space in crowded markets.
The term, ‘Designated Driver’ was created in 1988 by Harvard and a public relations firm to capture a relatively complex idea: Have someone sober available to drive when you’re drinking. With a big push through TV and film, it’s become a simple way to capture a behaviour now a household term in the English-speaking world, with similar campaigns globally in Brazil, Hong Kong, Korea.
In the world of social and behavior change, we can sometimes limit our appreciation of language to translating messages, or finding appropriate cultural references for the same terms. We work for basic comprehension, cultural acceptability and avoiding stigma, but we might be missing a trick.
Our key takeaway: we don’t need to become linguistic anthropologists, or slick marketeers. But we can dive deeper into language as a powerful and emotional tool to connect with the people whose behavior we’re trying to influence. Language deserves the same critical scrutiny and consideration as other areas of our research, testing and design process.
Want to explore more? Have a look at Through the Language Glass or this Guardian piece from a few years ago.
The Stories We Can’t Stop Thinking About
“Design Thinking Is Bullshit”
Judging by the level of interest in our HCD issue last year, many of you are as keen as we are on the potential of design thinking to solve tough problems in our field. But that doesn’t mean we should mindlessly accept it without question or stop pushing for evidence of its impact. So, for all of you who have ever spilled your drink while starting a sentence with, “The Problem with human centred design is…” these are for you: Design Thinking is Bullshit and Design Won’t Save the World and There’s So Little There.
The Research We’re Curious About
Size matters… in research teams
“…The smaller the research team working on a problem, the more likely it was to generate innovative solutions. Large consortia are still important drivers of progress, but they are best suited to confirming or consolidating novel findings, rather than generating them.” Check it out.
Appeal to the right morals to promote vaccination
Moral Foundations Theory was designed to chart moral values common across cultures that guide decision making. Six were identified: care/harm, authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, liberty/oppression, purity/degradation, and fairness/cheating. Turns out while we’ve been emphasizing fairness and harm, those against vaccination were prioritizing purity and liberty.
The Lessons That Are Sticking With Us
Design for Behaviour, not demographics
No one would argue that all pregnant women are the same. Or that people of a particular religion share the same motivations or views. Yet many global development programs are stuck on socio-demographic segmentation (age, religion, race, geography…) in their work to influence behaviour. The authors here argue for more adoption of “psycho-behavioral segmentation,” dividing people based not on their demographic profile but on what they do, and the factors influencing (motivations, beliefs…) why they behave that way.
What’s Distracting Us From Work
Emerging Infectious Literature
How did we not know about this?! Going on 10 years, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Bad Bugs Book Club, aims to get people interested in science, and microbiology, through literature in which infectious disease forms some part of the story. Read up on the 60 past books they’ve read (from Camus, to Margaret Atwood and Stephen King), or get the next book and set up your own BBBC (acronym our own).
This Newsletter was Produced While
Mike relieved stress with the indescribable sounds of DakhaBrakha.
Sherine tried to keep up with the mental jujitsu apparently now required to select a preschool.