Speaking to Business, Not Academics

Why do ethnographers find their work dismissed in many business settings?  Because we don’t always practice what we preach.  Once we land projects, we often fail to do an assessment of the most crucial cultural sample of all – the client. Vast numbers of pages, complex discussions of theoretical frameworks, and jargon-laden language are understood as hallmarks of academic writing.  Whether this actually improves our performance is contestable, but as we progress from undergraduate through graduate programs, through our careers, the length of our texts and the intellectual mass of specialized terminology as a rule grow in what seem to be exponential degrees.  The most avid consumers of ethnographies have traditionally been people engaged in fieldwork (or who aspire to it), people who hold deep interests in the discipline and who are willing to read what we create.  We learn to write and present for people that have the patience and frequently the need for lengthy, specialized, in-depth text, not for the fast-paced corporate world, where quick and to-the-point presentations are the expected norm.

Assessing the audiences can be thought of as an extended, ongoing mini-ethnography. Thinking in terms of an ongoing ethnography gives the researcher important insights into what it means to be a participant within a given context and allows him or her to begin formulating ideas about communicative tenets, power, and perceived sub-groups within the organization.  The processes we would employ if doing fieldwork in a more “traditional” setting must be employed, particularly during the earlier phases of a project.

Of course, the criteria we construct for identifying a community can be extremely varied and range from power relationships, racial distinction, job type, or any number of other theoretical stances.  The point being that the criteria we would employ for any field study must be used within not only the largest manifestation of the organization of which we are part, but also the multitude of other community divisions that occur throughout the organization in its totality.  We assume that the people we find ourselves among constitute a “community” (with varying degrees and levels of situated identity and subgroup allegiances) and that community must be sustained by systematic observations. We look for and expect to find commonalities in behavior, mutually intelligible habits, social activities, and modes of communication, etc.

In terms of presentation styles in the corporate world, sociolinguistic models of adaptation and understanding apply themselves well to understanding what and what not to do.  Learning the “local” meanings and methods of communication to the speech community is essential. This applies to the interdisciplinary team as well as the various client audiences. “The greatest value of learning the language of another people does not come from being able to interview informants without interpreters or from providing native terms in ethnographic writings; it comes from being able to understand what natives say and how they say it when they are conversing with each other.” (Witherspoon 1977, pp. 7)  In short, learning the communicative norms and processes of the individual groups allows us to better grasp and define our audiences, adapting our methods of presentation to be understandable and, and perhaps more importantly, acceptable according to their world views.

In the business environment short, direct modes of communication with little or no embellishment are standard practice.  This is not to say that a lengthy, detailed report is unnecessary.  It frequently is an expected part of the package.  However, the lengthy piece is often little more than window dressing for most of the people we address.  It is meant to back up higher-level statements.  This undoubtedly sounds cynical but it is not meant to diminish the detailed report or argue that analytical rigor and detailed information has no purpose.  Indeed, analytical rigor and depth of information are precisely what separate us from simple interviewers.  It is simply meant to point out that levels of detail serve different functions depending on who sees them.  A “Just the facts ma’am” process of communication is most frequently the best way to get your foot in the door – hit them with the big points and get them to interact and ask questions.

Inevitably, understanding and navigating this change of audience from disciplinarily and/or the academically bound almost always means abbreviating the content or restructuring it so, for better or worse, the fine points and ambiguities of the information are lost or downplayed for the immediate consumers of the research findings.  In most cases, the readers (or viewers of a presentation) are unfamiliar with our jargon, largely disinterested in the finer points of the theories involved in the data acquisition and the subtleties of human interaction that we often find so engrossing. This does not imply that the conclusions we draw be “dumbed down,” but rather that we must synthesize and distill the information so it can be readily applied to the needs of the consumers of that data.

In the end, we are writers and interpreters of the complexities of behavior and culture, romantic as that may sound.  The principal tools in our “tool kit” are theory, pen, and paper (or camcorder and PC).  Culture is created by the construction of text, the video, etc.; it is not a distinct object of scientific inquiry though we often assume that this is the case.

Several points should also be made very clear. First, each business community (and each company as well) will have their own specific patterns of communication.  However, as a whole businesses generally expect presentations that are succinct and short.

Second, communication styles, communities of practice, and expectations will differ from place to place.  The presentation expectations in Paris are significantly different from those in the Omaha.  While it is possible to think of Business as a distinct cultural process, it is important that this is a construct we impose to make our lives simpler, but business culture, such as it is, is subject to the historical, economic, and sociolinguistic realities of the larger culture in which it is couched. Ultimately, this means doing yet another internal ethnography even if it only touches on surface-level communication practices.

Finally, while we do explore it in great depth here, external perceptions of a researcher’s professional experience, expectations about how a scientist “should” sound, and division of power all work to influence how we present our findings and how readily they will be received. Suffice it to say, when determining audience needs and accepted norms of communication, it is important to reflect on the nature of power and expectation based in the local folk taxonomy, e.g. what is a “scientist” or an “anthropologist” and how does that impact expectations of what we present.           

The fact that anthropologists are increasingly in demand leaves us holding at least some of the cards.  The fact that business people are coming to understand that disciplinary training is in fact necessary to effectively perform and interpret data (in the sense of all acquired knowledge), that expertise is in fact more than a catch phrase, gives us some degree of clout and places anthropologists in a better position to redefine the emerging lexicon of business, of which words like “ethnography”, “culture”, and “anthropology” are an undeniable component. But it means learning to communicate these ideas in a language that fits their context, not ours.



Using Key Words to Build Better Insights

There is a essential link between the shared life of a society and the lexicon of the language spoken by it. Language is frequently understood by researchers in strings of utterances rather than individual lexical components.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, but it does limit how we analyze and interpret what people tell us.  Examining the cultural context and deeper meanings of key words used by a people can shed light on how they navigate the world, including how they think about products and brands.  For example, while English has a special word for orange jam (marmalade), German does not.  Similarly, while “cola” describes a specific drink, “coke” has become a universal word for cola around the globe and a reference to all soft drinks in parts of the South.  Obviously, these examples tell us something about the eating and drinking habits of the people in question.  If we take the time to tease out what these individual words mean, we can craft language and messaging that is more relevant and leads to more sales.

So when we talk about “key words” what do we mean? Simply key words are those which are particularly revealing in a given culture.  They are words people can expound upon, will debate the meaning, will weave into stories and involve passionate discourse.  In other words, they are the words go beyond the mundane and codify our understanding of the world. There is no finite set of key words in a language and there is no “objective discovery procedure” for identifying them, which of course sends people obsessed with numbers into a tailspin.  But lacking a discovery procedure does not mean that identification lacks evidence.  To show a word had some special importance to a culture means making a case for it.  So how do we make a claim for particular words?

First, it makes sense to establish that a words is a common word not a marginal one.  These need not be related to frequency in daily use, but may be specific to a semantic domain.  Second, it often makes sense to explore whether or not a word is at the center of a phraseological cluster. Finally, it makes sense to explore and identify if a word occurs frequently in pop culture, songs, proverbs, book titles, etc.  The point is to look not only for frequency, but how the word is used in relation to specific concepts, including brands.  The intent is not, or shouldn’t be, to “prove” whether or not a word is one of a culture’s key words, but rather to be able to say something significant about a culture by undertaking an in-depth study of some of them. It is less about the less for numbers and statistical validation and more about insight and the search for meaning.

Understandably, the search for key words and their associated meanings within a cultural context can be criticized as an atomistic pursuit that lacks the breadth of a holistic approach and there is some truth to that. And the objection would be valid if the research revolved around a random selection of words viewed in isolation.  But that is not what I’m suggesting. The point is to use key words as focal points around which we can show general organizing and symbolic principles. In turn, those modes of organization can be used to develop structures and identify coherence of meaning to a cultural domain and the connections across domains.

A key word such as “old” in American English is like the loose end of a ball of tangled values, assumptions, expectations and attitudes about aging.  Like the use of metaphor as a tool for uncovering the meanings behind utterances, isolation of a key word allows the researcher to explore the meaning of a concept from the choice of associated words to the syntax around them.  Seemingly abstract stuff, yes, but there is a practical side to it.  If you can understand the complexities around a key word, you can build messaging that reflects proper meaning, grammatical structure and associated imagery in UI structure, design and advertising.  In other words, it allows you to create a holistic solution to a problem.



Linguistic Determinism and Successful Marketing

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.  Without a linguistic counterpart to a new-found action or object, we find ourselves searching for meaning in terms of categorization, semantics, and symbolic associations.  We are the words we have at our disposal and when we don’t have the word (or words) we languish. Language determinism is the idea that language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought. The words we possess determine the things that we can know. If we have an experience, we are confined not just in our communication of it, but also in our knowledge of it, by the words we possess.

Though the work of Sapir and Whorf (no, not the Star Trek guy with the deformed forehead, but the linguist) are a perennial point of debate in sociolinguistic circles, their work still matters.  In a nutshell, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that individuals experience the world based on the lexical items and grammatical structures they habitually use. For example, speakers of different languages may see different numbers of bands in a rainbow. Since rainbows are actually a continuum of color, there are no empirical stripes or bands, and yet people see as many bands as their language possesses primary color words. For those engaged in design or marketing, this has significant implications when launching brands in a global market.

The objective world is entirely removed by the presence of language. It is perceived, but human life is determined by having language and by the language’s own internal demands. Like Semiotics, which argues that a single grammar exists prior to all human activity, the structures, hierarchies, and hidden associations of our individual human languages determine the conclusions that we reach in our logic, the aspirations of our lived lives, and all our emotional content.  In other words, we are our language and while there may be exceptions to the rule (though I’ve yet to see one) the fact remains that who we are and how we see the world is bound up in the act of communication, linguistic exchanges in particular.

So what does it mean to marketers and the like?  It simply means that a clever turn of phrase isn’t necessarily the best option when talking to the people we’re trying to sell things to. The underlying symbolic and structural elements of language need to be understood in a range of contexts and the webs of meaning need to be explored. Far too often, we write copy and brand descriptions that simply don’t make sense or are so removed from the context of the people using the product, engaging in the retail space, etc. as to become detrimental to our goals in marketing the brand. Knowing what someone said our how they feel isn’t enough.  We need to understand how they create and interpret their world, then create modes of communication that go beyond a tagline or list of attributes.  We need to understand the complexity of the human condition and how language shapes behavior, beliefs and action.