My wife is Singaporean and occasionally we go back to visit her folks.
We’re usually a bit more tanned when we come back.
After one particular holiday we went to see my mum.
Mum opened the door, gave her a big hug and said, “Ooh Cathy, you look lovely. You look just like a nigger.”
Cathy didn’t know what to make of this.
She’d been told this word was a terrible insult.
And yet here was someone clearly using it as a compliment.
Cathy was listening simultaneously to the intent and the words, and they were giving her mixed messages.
In other words, cognitive dissonance.
Clearly my mum thought looking like a nigger was a good thing.
The problem was no one had told my mum that nigger was now a bad word.
Mum was born before the First World War, and it wasn’t a bad word then.
It was just slang, like Yank, or Scouse, or Frog, or Kraut, or Jap, or Jock, or Paddy, or Kiwi, or Bubble, or Cockney.
Maybe not the language you’d use at an embassy reception.
But this was east London.
Language is rougher and cruder.
To see if any offense is meant, you have to listen to the intention.
Not just the words.
Cognitive dissonance works the other way round, too.
Have you ever heard a mother in the supermarket whose child is having a tantrum?
Often she’ll be screaming, “CALM DOWN!!!” at the child, at the top of her voice.
And wondering why it isn’t working.
Apparently, only 25% of communication is in the words we actually use.
The other 75% is everything else.
The tone of voice we say the words in.
Whether we’re smiling or frowning.
Whether our body language is friendly or hostile.
But when we communicate in print, like this blog, we lose that 75%.
So it’s completely easy to misinterpret intention.
Irony for instance, doesn’t work.
Take the two words, “Oh really?”
That’s all you get on paper.
An enquiry, apparently seeking verification.
But face-to-face you get the bit in brackets.
“Oh really?” (enthusiastic)
“Oh really?” (bored)
“Oh really?” (sarcastic)
“Oh really?” (suspicious)
“Oh really?” (surprised)
My father-in-law was an old fashioned Chinaman.
When he came to London he was shocked at the way strangers addressed my mother-in-law in the street.
From shopkeepers to bus conductors.
They’d call her “Love” and “Dear” and “Darling” and “Sweetheart”.
He became sullen.
Eventually he confronted her, “Why do all these people know you well enough to call you ‘darling’? What’s going on?”
It took some time to convince him that his wife was innocent.
She didn’t know these people.
“Then why do they call you ‘darling’?” he wanted to know.
“It’s just their way,” she kept repeating.
“Look, women even call other women ‘love’.”
Eventually she persuaded him to listen to the intention instead of just the words.
And then he could see that no harm was intended by anyone.
The words didn’t signify what he thought they did.
They were actually just meant to be friendly, even respectful.
He would have to adjust to people addressing his wife in this most intimate way.
Using words no one in China would use outside the bedroom.
He would have to learn to listen to the 75%, not just the 25%.
That’s what we all need to remember.
When we have an idea for an ad and fall in love with it.
And in our imaginations, we can see how great it could be.
So we write it up as a script.
Then we give the script to the client.
And they don’t buy it.
And we’re furious that they can’t see how great it could be.
We expect them to see all the possibilities we see.
But all they see is words on paper.
In our heads we can see the other 75%, but they can’t.
John Webster always said, “I hate writing scripts because they can’t get anywhere near what’s in my head.”
But we have to write scripts.
Because no one can justify spending hundreds of thousands of pounds based solely on what’s in our head.
They need something tangible.
And the only tangible part is the 25% that can be written down.
The other 75%, the important part, can’t.
So we need to remember the limitations of words.
As Seneca said, “The word ‘dog’ never bit anyone.”