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Changing emotions with a word: The subtleties of semiotics (economist.com)
65 points by known 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments

The HBO film "Conspiracy" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_(2001_film) ) is a great example of (domestic) diplomacy, diplomatic language, persuasion vs force, using language to steer actions that will have terrible consequences. There is no "action" ... it revolves around the preparation and execution of an elaborate meal and conference at a Third Reich mansion ... and yet it's one of the most gripping movies I've ever seen.

There's a wonderful novel by Javier Marías, A Heart So White, where the opening focuses on a simultaneous translator at a meeting between a thinly disguised José María Aznar and Margaret Thatcher. He starts to take small liberties with the translation of what "Aznar" is saying, watching reaction of "Thatcher"'s female translator, each time taking slightly bigger liberties because she doesn't say what's happening. It's a lovely portrait of a risky, silent conspiracy, all in the name of testing boundaries rather than ulterior political motives.

I recommend this essay by Eric Weinstein on Russell Conjugations: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27181

thanks, very enlightening

"...they suspected that employing nouns (“I am in favour of the removal of settlers”), rather than verbs (“I am in favour of removing settlers”), to convey support for policy positions would have a calming effect."

This article is pretty frustrating. Another reason for this effect, and one I've always thought true, is that using nouns in English is often more circuitous, using more "fillers" like prepositions to convey the same idea, thus softening or obfuscating the harshness of the meaning communicated.

In other words, they don't seem to prove that nouns cause this effect, but that English's use of nouns causes this effect.

Anecdotally, I know a lot of programmers who use hedge words to soften their code reviews. So I think you might be on to something here.

Hebrew, not English.

But yes, it would be interesting how this compares between languages. I feel like this is a common pattern in many languages though.

EDIT: another angle could be social status: some might perceive this negatively as bureaucrat speak or phony?

To have a political discussion without getting people too self-defensive, it's good to pose opinions in the third person:

"I support Trump because he's tough on immigration."


"People support Trump because he's tough on immigration."

Others are less likely to get combative when it seems like you are making an observation about a third party rather than planting a flag on a core belief.

I work in an environment that requires me to have political/social conversations while also retaining my personal neutrality (I am not allowed to acknowledge personal beliefs).

I can second the usefulness of this approach. It goes a long a way toward keeping the discussion on the issue at hand and avoiding personal defensiveness.

That's always annoyed me with US politics. In the US politicians have a habit of saying "The American people..." Which immediately triggers my thought: "I'm an American person and I don't think that way".

The speaker seems immediately out of touch with me when they use the third person. However, when they use the first person and take responsibility for their own unique views, I can understand them better even if I don't agree.

I agree with your point but I suspect the problem with statements like the one you identified is that they claim too much.

In other words, if I say "The American people want X", there are surely some Americans who don't want X and I just alienated them. If, however, I say "many Americans want X", I'm making a weaker claim that is easier to defend.

In general, I prefer that people err on the side of making a weaker claim. It's less frustrating to communicate with people willing to do so (for me, at least).

The one downside of criticizing "weasel words" is that more people start making overly broad claims that you and I do not care for.

My favorite hedge is "The American people have spoken" whenever 350 or so adults with landlines answer a loaded question by saying they "somewhat agree."

Bypass paywall: https://archive.fo/lqb1Z

Browsing incognito works, too.

Surely this is language dependent! Different languages apply different emphasis to the use of verbs vs nouns/gerunds. There's plenty of good work in that area. I presume the students were all Hebrew speakers?

I only have moderate experience in other languages, but I would suspect that there are other ways of achieving the same effect. My aunt is a professor of Spanish, and in her words English is adjective-heavy, while Spanish is verb-heavy which reduces the need for very specific adjectives. So in English you might have to add color to a boring verb to add emotion, but in Spanish you would just pick a better verb.

Maybe this is a naive reaction, but it is genuinely horrifying to me that these basic tricks could influence professional diplomats, who are negotiating treaties and policies influencing the lives of millions of people.

Sure, I understand that a random person on the street might be more supportive of "I support the division of Jerusalem" over "I support dividing Jerusalem".

But someone who's entire skillset, career, and purpose is to deal with this question? SURELY, even in this post-truth age of Trump, the facts have to matter for SOMETHING?

I doubt it's as effective in diplomatic contexts. Dipolmats (in the broadest sense, including politicians) do not walk into a room, get faced with a single question and then vote yes or no. They work in teams, they discuss issues over many years, they engage in numerous debates and conduct studies and theoretical scenarios. No one phrase on a topic is going to decide their objectives, policies or strategy.

What this sort of thing can do his promote trust or at least tolerance of individuals prepared to talk in this way. That's not necessarily a bad thing, someone who puts in the effort to use diplomatic language, is more likely to be someone who considers their words and actions more carefully, so this could be a useful and actually relevant social signal.

Well, a diplomat perfectly well understands those are not equivalent statements. The later is a much stronger, balder statement while the former suggests building consensus before acting. Each signals a quite different posture.

Other way round, surely : facts are complicated, inaccessible and often resistant to summary. Whereas the most important thing in politics is how people feel about the outcome.

(This is what Rumsfeld meant by contrasting himself with the "reality based community"; humans are really a subjectivity-based community unless they put a lot of effort into detaching.)

The sample size was pretty small and the difference in average was small too. I do not know if this warranted an article on the Economist.

This reminds me of some of the points that Nassim Taleb makes in his books "Skin in the Game" and "Fooled by Randomness". In "Skin in the Game" warns against scientists studying humans in controlled environments and how its not relevant to how humans behave when they have skin in the game. Sort of like, you reveal to me your believes by what stocks you buy or what actions you take. And in "Fooled by Randomness" he talks about how we make out patterns of out randomness.

Doesn't this change the meaning of the sentence, though? I learned this in school as the 'active voice' and the 'passive voice'. My understanding is that when you change nouns to verbs and vice versa you are also changing the meaning of the sentence.

How can this research be done, then? Since the two sentences mean entirely different things, obviously people will react differently to them - they are not interchangeable, they have specific and different meanings!

"I support the division..."


"I support dividing..."

mean entirely different things. The first one is passive and indicates that the speaker/author is outside of the decision to divide\ and possible outside of the area itself.

The second one is active and implies that the speaker is going to be involved in the dividing activity itself.

Obviously the words will get different reactions from people because they mean different things. Without additional tests to query what the population understood the sentence to mean, along with how they feel about it, would make sense.

But as it is, this is like finding out that people react differently to "let's use fire" vs "lets use a blanket". They are totally different things.

That is definitely not what active voice and passive voice mean, they are relatively precise terms in linguistics, see for example Fear and Loathing of the English Passive by Geoffrey Pullum (http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf). Both I support the division... and I support dividing... are in active voice.

"The division is supported by me" would be an actual passive.

That doesn't sound grammatical to me, it doesn't sound like the sort of thing anybody would even try to say. I think it violates the rule that Pullum discusses in 2.4.2 p.8 (new-information condition) in that link.

Not quite. I could say "I support colonizing mars" and "I support the colonization of mars" and those both mean the same thing, don't they? I'm not actively participating in either of those acts, am I?

I think a lot of it is implicit and context based. And maybe it's even based on personal interpretation, but even in your examples, I see those two sentences meaning the same thing.

"I support the division..." and "I support dividing..." both indicate support for the act of dividing, whether you have the authority of decide on whether or not the division is happening.

If I'm at a birthday party and there's one piece of cake left but three people still hungry, I could say "I support the division of the piece of cake" or "I support dividing the piece of cake" even if the person celebrating the birthday is the ultimate authority on whether we will divide the cake. I'd convey the same idea, just with slightly different words, and likely different intonation, too.

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