Language is more than words

I’m fascinated by language.

It’s one of the relatively small number of things which sets human beings apart from any other animal, and it’s the foundation on which pretty much all our knowledge, cooperation, and even civilisations are built.

It’s also the stock-in-trade of a researcher—language remains the main tool we have to understand other people and how they see the world.

But there’s a danger that when we think about “language” we reduce it to simply the words we use. We send and understand meaning far more richly than that, and in many ways our ability to communicate goes beyond what we’re consciously aware of.

There’s a fascinating article in New Scientist about the way in which we use filler words such as “um”, “uh”, and “huh?”. As the article says

“Far from being an inarticulate waste of breath, filler words like um, uh, mmm and huh are essential for efficient communication, sending important signals about the words we are about to say so that two speakers can better understand each other.”

The research shows that filler words are not mistakes, and they’re not empty or interchangeable, but form a kind of metalanguage. “Um”, for example, signals a longer pause than “uh”.

These words help the listener to understand what to expect, and they also prepare us to be ready for a change, or something unexpected, and therefore help us to notice and remember significant things.

That’s why it worries me so much when qualitative research is reduced to customer quotes. Shorn of body language, tone, context, and metalanguage detail which we may process without conscious awareness, it hardly seems right to call these shallow collections of text “verbatims”.

For qualitative researchers, our interpretation of what customers mean is at the heart of the work we do. It’s by taking advantage of our ability to interpret these clues correctly that real customer insight is possible, not by piling up quotes.

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