The Business of Language and the Language of Business

Entering the world of business is a significant challenge for an anthropologist.  There are questions about the moral ambiguity and exploitative nature of the capitalist system.  There are concerns about the relationship between industrialized nations and the indigenous populations that invariably produce the goods that are sold.  There is the internal debate over globalization and the development of new forms of colonialism.  And finally, how do we speak to our employers in such a way as to effectively communicate our findings?  The first issues are exceedingly difficult to resolve, requiring individuals to look within and determine what is and is not acceptable from his or her philosophical and theoretical understanding of the world.  The last is perhaps less difficult intellectually, but at times just as painful.  Learning a new language is never easy.

Today, my anthropological training is applied to attempting to understand the ways in which culture influences and reflects how people interact with, use, and conceptualize the brands, objects, and products.  The nature of the work is such that research time is often dreadfully limited and the results of fieldwork are frequently ambiguous.  Communicating this to groups that expect simple, concrete answers and recommendations is at times a seemingly insurmountable task.

My first presentation (part of the far distant past) to a combined group of business executives, industrial designers, and marketing experts did not go well.  I was branded as being too academic when I did the unthinkable and used polysyllabic words such as “epistemology” and “neocolonialism” (never mind that I had failed to reduce the finding to a series of bulletpoints on a PowerPoint deck).  To make matters worse, I made the mistake of talking about “building” the business as opposed to “growing the business organically,” an act of sociolinguistic impropriety so great as to draw angry glares and barely concealed threats of banishment.  While my initial reaction was to dismiss their reactions, further reflection brought the realization that I had failed to live up to what I had learned as a student – in essence my reaction was ethnocentric and perhaps arrogant, if we view the business environment as a culture in its own right with rules of behavior and communication – all of which I had largely overlooked or dismissed. 

For an anthropologist interested in practicing in the business world, it is as important that he or she learn the language, so to speak, of that culture as it is for an anthropologist entering the a small, tribal society.  It would be tempting to initially argue that the university settings in which we first learn the basics of our discipline are remiss in preparing students for the corporate life, but this would be shortsighted, inaccurate, and unfair.  Preparation ultimately rests on the practitioner’s shoulders – we receive the fruits of experience of our teachers, but ultimately we must learn the basics of the languages and customs of the people with whom we will live and work on our own.  Unfortunately, learning the communication styles and language of the business world must be done rapidly – the “natives” are largely unforgiving and impatient, casting the “academic” anthropologist out on the street if they do not perform within the approved social and linguistic norms quickly.  And so I have learned, or so I like to believe.

To my mind, the most significant change comes in the way we present our findings.  Increasingly, the preferred mode of communication in the business world is the bullet point.  Findings typically must be distilled to their most basic principles and recommendations asserted with the voice of command.  While painfully frustrating, it often serves to engage the audience enough to get them to begin asking more detailed questions.  This does not mean the abandonment of detailed reports.  Rather, the report serves to defend or expand recommendations.  No matter how dependent they may be on the bullet point, the in-depth report is still an expectation of the employer.  With time it becomes a respected element of the work.  My limited experience has indicted that we are a new voice to business and though respected, we are expected to adapt to the social and linguistic rules of this unforgiving lot.

So, as we talk to the issues that will develop into holistic synergies, we continue to harvest constructive relationships and build a new paradigm – or something along those lines.  




Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Interesting article. I am in a similar position in that I hve worked as a market researcher for almost 10yrs and now work in an ad agency which though they feed off each other have quite different cultures and ways of working. On top of that, I am studying for a post graduate degree in social anthropology which I’d wanted to use to further my knowledge and understanding of culture and society to better my skills at work.
    I’m quite fortunate that my employers let me work AND study as the two are quite different. I can see how you struggled in your first presentation. I see some of my classmates being quite ‘purist’ in their views on the world and where anthropology sits in relation to other disciplines. I think it is quite natural to want to put forward not only the principles of your degree but even the language customs and norms of that discipline (after all isn’t that how colonialism worked?)
    Participant observation, Habitus and large doses of humility come to mind though in succeding in the business world. Anthropology is not without faults of its own and it is not always nimble enough for the vagaries of the real world. I’ve found that the focus on the past and problematizing issues as well as existing in an academic ivory tower cripple the support of arguement of the relevance of the discipline in the business world. You mention the simplicity of language necessary to communicate in the business world! Jargon (because that is what some of the words you had used) is not always the best indicator of intelligence. I always find it interesting when anthropologists try to use this method of putting forward a message. It feels like a feeble attempt to gain social status! My doctor, my dentist, my personal trainer, my IT advisor are all well trained professionals. But I would replace them the moment they failed to clearly articulate their expertise in a language that we all understand – in today’s world simplicity is possible without eroding professionalism and expert advice…if anthropologists fail to use this, they will continue to see cuts in budgets for their departments and most importantly graduates will fail to become productive members of society making full use of their expertise…

    1. Interesting piece. Thank you for posting. I have worked in hospital marketing, market research and communications for nearly 30 years and have an M.A. in medical anthropology from Case Western Reserve University. It never fails to amaze me how useful it is to employ an anthropological perspective in marketing, esp when it comes to the Voice of the Customer. And yes learning the jargon, concepts and perspectives of the business world has been a career long journey for me. I also believe that marketers are fundamentally translators – that is, they translate the needs and perspective of the customer into the language of business, in my case healthcare and the marketer then takes the perspective of business and makes it intelligible to the customer. In healthcare this becomes even more complex due to the language of clinical medicine being yet another language I need to understand and translate to the various customers of the hospital. Sometimes, I have a (metaphorical) headache, trying to determine which language I am speaking to which stakeholder group or target audience. Perhaps you can relate, too.

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