Someone asked us this question a couple of days ago. The chap asked us how we felt about altering people’s feelings and actions with the words we use.
It’s an interesting question, which kind of boils down to: Where is the line between gently encouraging people and trying to somehow mind-bend them with propaganda?
There’s no neutral ground
The first observation we make on the subject is that there is no neutral language. Every single word you’ll ever utter carries baggage. And every time you write or speak, you evoke emotion in the people who read or hear you.
This isn’t to say the emotion you evoke is necessarily earth-shattering. Your words might stir a feeling of mild boredom. Or they could feel reassuringly predictable. Or vaguely encouraging. But they will never be without effect.
There is simply no “safe zone” where language doesn’t have an impact. All language has an impact.
And all language “manipulates” to some degree
I had a BBQ at my home recently and I knew a lot of people would be there. So I put labels on bins to make sure we could recycle as much as possible.
To start with, I labelled the bins:
- General rubbish
I looked at them, and I thought, nah – I’d really like people to recycle wherever possible. So I changed “General rubbish” to “Landfill”.
I figured that people like to be reassured that they’re doing the same thing as everyone else – so labelling anything as “general” meant there was an implicit message that this was the most likely, most acceptable option. “Landfill” on the other hand meant people had to make an active choice to send the remnants of their meal to be buried rather than reused.
Was this manipulation? Yes, of course. Was it acceptable? I thought so. It’s likely to have resulted in more recycling and less landfill.
And to return to the previous point – if I’d stuck with “General rubbish” that would also have been evoking an emotional response – just a different one. Instead of making people think, “Erm, actually, let’s see if there’s an alternative to landfill,” they could have been forgiven for thinking, “General – ah ok, this is what most people do.”
In psychology and sociology, this is called “framing”. It’s the effect of presenting the same concept through different lenses. Whichever frame or lens you present the information in affects the way people understand and react to it.
Reframing ideas to make people rethink them is an age-old device. And like all devices, it can be used for good or for ill. “Landfill” – good. “Alternative facts” – not so great.
Language can be manipulative, even if you haven’t altered it
When we think of “manipulating” something, we think of someone actively making changes. But unchanged, status quo language and thinking manipulates – probably to even greater effect – than disruptive language and thinking.
Here’s an example. A friend reminded me of an ad from the late 1970s, for Flora margarine. (I was popping a pack of it in the fridge and he theatrically mouthed the word “Flora”.) The ad is here if you want to choke on your coffee.
In it, a “Flora man” extols his “Flora wife” to buy the right spread. The payoff is the line: “Flora, the margarine for men.” The ad both conforms to and reinforces the norms of the day, where wives are simply grateful to have husbands to mansplain grocery shopping and home economics. To be fair to Flora, the language and story was standard for the time and used by tons of other brands. But did it influence or control people’s behaviour and thinking? Probably, yes. And was that a good thing? Debatable.
The point is this: Modernising, changing and re-evaluating language to evoke different emotional responses in your audiences isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s often a really good thing indeed.
Deliberately using language to provoke certain responses isn’t necessarily a bad thing
Take, for example, the relatively recent emergent of the prefix “cis”. Cis-gendered means that you identify with the gender you were born to. It’s the opposite of “trans” – which means nature dealt you a cruel blow and put you into a body whose gender you don’t identify with.
It’s a new frame, which takes us away from “normal” and “not normal” and which helps to describe gender in a more nuanced way, taking us closer to accurate understanding. So is the introduction of this new language manipulation? Kind of – but it’s a manipulation that should help us all learn more about one another and be kinder to one another in the long run.
No-one is immune to the effects of language
Language is a vastly underrated human ability and tool. It shapes our thinking. It allows us to share information. It lets us assess other people. It gives us a way to think new things and express new ideas. It allows us to transmit culture.
It can do all of these things because it’s the flip-side of thinking. You can’t think without words to put your thoughts into. And you can’t make words if you can’t think. So anyone who thinks they’re “immune” to the effects of language is probably wrong. It’s hardwired deep into us.
I remember a chap in a workshop challenging me on this once. “I don’t believe in brand,” he said. “It’s just a stupid thing that stupid people get caught up in.”
All the time, he was wearing a T-shirt with the word HOLLISTER emblazoned across it.
Yet he truly believed that brands were for weak-minded people and that his stronger constitution was immune to any manipulation.
It’s even more impossible to shake the influence of language than it is brand. Our words and stories shape our thinking from our very earliest days. Copywriters and brand people try to use language to reshape thinking, just a little – steering us towards new actions and new perspectives.
Is this “just manipulation”? The only exception I take to the question is the word “just”. I’d say it’s a skilful way of looking at a desired action and choosing the best possible way to get someone to want to make it.