Monday, July 31, 2006

Contextual Control is Contagious

I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (I know a couple years late to the party). Halfway through, I find myself hoping for more (or because of his roundabout style, less and more to the point). But one point I found most interesting was his discussion of the “Power of Context.” It basically asserts that our actions and thoughts are determined more by the context around us, rather than our nature or previous experience. One of the greatest examples of this is study done at Stanford in the 70s where they closely mimicked prison conditions with volunteers as guards and prisoners. They had to stop the experiment in just 6 days - normal people were torturing prisoners.

Given the last post on language and thought, let’s go through a little language exercise. But first let’s talk about the word “yawn.” You probably would say that you yawn because you are tired. Some might say that the yawn is the body’s way of getting more oxygen. The yawn pulls in a deep breath. It is even spelled phonetically like that: “yawn.” But why do you really yawn? Pause. Think of your answer …

Well, the answer is because I told you to. Chances are that most of you yawned while reading this or will yawn in the next minute or two. Not because you are tired (previous experience), not because you always yawn in the afternoon (nature) and hopefully not because what I write is boring. You will yawn because I set a simple context that affected your behavior. For the record I yawned 5 times when I wrote this. It’s not the sleep apnea … it’s simply the context around me.

In my line of work in product marketing and sales, this is what it is all about. I may not be the guy who gets them to sign at the dotted line or even make the great pitch, but I help set the context for someone to spend several hundred thousand dollars on software. And if you can set the context for contagious behavior you get things like My Space, text messaging, and iPods. All I needed was a cartoon dancing to realize I needed an iPod. Didn’t you?

Oh and if someone around you saw you yawn, they might yawn as well. And they may spread it too. How many people are yawning today because I read The Tipping Point and wrote about this? How many yawns were just because of Gladwell? Millions. Billions?

If you can make anyone yawn, what else can you do by simply setting the right context? Do you think about context every time you try to affect an action out of someone? Shouldn’t you more? What other tricks do you have up your sleeve?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Partnering Language and Thinking

Have you ever wondered why no one can remember any memories from before the age of about 6? The common theory is that the brain organizes your memories in the language which you have just learned to speak. Over time, all those previous memories become an unrecognized format. So if your thoughts are modeled as language, what does that say about how language limits your ability to think?

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, points out how deeply language affects our thinking. Western thinking is linear. Very cause and effect. So is our language: subject-predicate. I did this. He caused that. Eastern language structure is much more circular, and so is their thinking. From reincarnation to greater notions of causality, eastern cultures see more dimensions and reinforcement effects. Looking at the most successful new technology and Internet services, the majority seem to be viral networks: MySpace, Flicker, YouTube, blogging,, or Squidoo. The Internet has vastly reduced the barriers to connectivity, between businesses and between people. Should our language evolve to do the same?

This brings up an obvious question: How has our language evolved? Last year’s word of the year was podcast. Audio transmissions are becoming much more a part of our lives. It started with the familiar incantation of music. Now I listen about a quarter of my ear bud time to podcasts on business and entrepreneurship and I am looking for lectures on a variety of new topics.

But the word that has most recently struck me is “partner.” My mother recently referred to her 70 year old friend and her partner. I was shocked and responded “My god, Regina is a lesbian?” Well, no she is not. It has just become such a popular term that even heterosexuals are using it, but it still retains its gay undertones. So as “partner” proliferates, so does acceptance of gay unions.

That’s why Republicans are fighting gay marriage now, because people are gaining sensitivity to it. Their only chance is to fight it now. It may not be because of language, but the change in our language is a pretty clear indicator of the way people’s opinions, their thoughts, are changing.

How has language constrained (or enabled) your thinking?