Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Problem with Polysemy: Communicating when words don't matter.


Misunderstandings are a natural part of communication.  They are to be expected, planned for, accepted, and dealt with as proactive an approach as possible.  What I am going to be writing about today is a particular kind of misunderstanding; a misunderstanding that derives from the very nature of the communication process, and the weaknesses intrinsic within it.  This type of misunderstanding is, as the title of this entry suggests, polysemy.
Polysemy is quite literally “multiple meanings”.  In more specific terms it relates to the capacity of a sign – a physical embodiment that is used to represent a concept, such as a word, a sound, a symbol, or so forth – to have multiple referents – these are essentially the actual meaning or concept, for example an actual cat as opposed to the word “cat” (which is a sign). 
In terms of the overall communication process, shown below, polysemy takes place in the decoding of a sign.  A sender encodes a referent in to a sign, which is then decoded back in to a referent by the receiver.  The process of encoding is mostly unimportant to what we are discussing today – although we will return to it later.  What we are focused on is the process of decoding.



There are a few more concepts that I want to touch on briefly in order to round out the foundation before we go much further.  These are:
1)    Signs are arbitrary.  With the possible exception of onomatopoeia or visual representations – where the sign and the referent are closely linked by the very fact that the sign embodies some aspect the referent – there is no particular reason why a cat is called a cat, or why a red octagon means stop, or why the word nice means something pleasant. 
2)    Perception is reality.  It is through the process of decoding that the world is given meaning.  More importantly it is through the process of decoding that communication is given meaning.  In much the same way that stoners in Hollywood movies discuss whether the blue you see is the same as the blue I see, or the way in which you see a cloud in a Rorschach painting when I see a kitten, what we must understand is that there is no objective reality; merely a subjective reality.  This can be widely agreed upon – such as red octagons meaning STOP – but, again, it is up to the receiver to actually give that red octagon an actual meaning.  This is because…
3)    Signs have no inherent meaning.  Try as you might as a sender of a message you cannot imbue it with an inherent meaning.  If, dear reader, you are suspicious of my point, allow me to expand with a couple of examples.  If a sign could have an inherent meaning then wordplay could not exist, as the receiver would always interpret the sign in the way that the sender intended (puns are made possible through polysemy, after all).  In a more extreme example, if a sign could have an inherent meaning we would not have to learn language, as language is merely an agreed upon series of signs and their associated referents; if the sign carried inherent meaning it would be capable of being decoded regardless of whether or not there was an agreed upon sign-referent association. 
These work in combination to reinforce what I have touched upon before: what I say and what you hear are fundamentally different things.  More importantly in terms of polysemy what I hear, what you hear, and what a third person would hear, are again all fundamentally different things.  The diagram below demonstrates this.

Adapted from Puntoni, S., Schroeder, J. E., & Ritson, M. (2010). Meaning matters: Polysemy in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 39(2), 51-64. 

This is why I consider it so important that when communicating you focus on what you want heard rather than what you want to say.  This is why I consider it so important to attempt to communicate empathetically: to put yourself in the shoes of your intended audience to understand the manner in which they decode information so that you can create encoded messages that minimise the opportunity for misunderstanding.  It is not up to the receiver to decode the message “correctly” so much as it is up to the sender to ensure that it is encoded so that it will be decoded as it is intended.  Or if not decoded as it is intended, as close to as intended as possible. 
Now, the discussion that typically prompts my desire to descend in to an explanation of polysemy revolves around offensive language, but I don’t particularly want to litter my burgeoning blog with a whole lot of awful words.  However I will say that a word cannot be inherently offensive, or bad, but rather that a person’s interpretation of that sign might associate it with a particularly hurtful referent.  This is why it is so important to communicate conscientiously; to be aware of how your words can and will be decoded by others, and to have the empathy required to avoid the usage of language that may be harmless to you but that may have a harmful referent for others.  You can encode ‘lame’ in any number of ways that do not involve harming others, similarly ‘foolish’, and so on.  Say what you mean.  That being said, language is not a static object, and the shared understanding does change over time; what one day means ignorant or lascivious may, through changing the context of usage, come to mean pleasant, as is the case with the word ‘nice’. 
So with that out of the way I have another example to discuss the manner in which being unaware of the dangers of polysemy can be potentially hazardous to wanting to get your message across.  The example I have chosen is a recent one, and one where I ended up having some rather long and drawn out discussions in an attempt to explain this issue: Occupy Wall Street.  More specifically I am going to explore the trend at the beginning of this movement to consciously avoid explaining their message in depth.  Again, I won’t go in to political allegiances and so forth, but say that this is intended mostly as an example that should be salient for most people. 
Simply put: at the beginning of OWS, when asked why they were protesting, a typical response was that they were protesting in response to “economic injustice” or “unfair taxes” or something similar.  This is problematic. 


This is perhaps something of an oversimplification of the positions – again, political discourse is not the goal here – but the fact that the three positions are each quite different is quite important.  More important is the fact that each of these groups is in full agreement with the assertion that there is economic injustice, yet would arguably disagree with one-another on the actual meaning of the message and how to take action against it.  To focus on “economic injustice” as a central issue, yet to resist defining what that actually means to you, is to engage in extraordinarily poor communication; particularly if it means being in agreement with those you actually oppose.  Harmful to dialogue, and harmful to the attempt to actually get the message out.
This is why we must be so cautious of agreeing with those who refuse to define terms.  If they do not explain what their meaning is – the referent that underpins their sign – we may end up agreeing based purely on our subjective meaning rather than what is actually being discussed.  We are in essence agreeing with ourselves.  Communication is fundamentally about shared understanding and therefore cannot be achieved without both sides making their positions known with as little ambiguity as possible. 
In short, in order to communicate in a world where polysemy is rampant:
1)    Focus on what you want to be heard.  Communicate empathetically.
2)    Avoid signs that are likely to be decoded incorrectly.
3)    Say what you mean.  Minimise ambiguity through clear definition.
Unless you want to deceive people, in which case just do the opposite of what I suggest and you should be golden.  But that would be kind of a jerk move.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wherein our hero forgoes trees for the forest and ends up talking in circles.


I'm going to start this one out with something of a crazy guy manifesto on what marketing means to me. I am not a full on stereotypical sleazy 80s business guy (although I do appreciate the safety dance) and as this is the field I have apparently chosen for myself I feel like it would be a positive to get my thoughts on the discipline down somewhere. This will also have the added bonus of laying some groundwork or future entries on other subjects.

Let me begin by exploring how I came to the place I am today. Despite a rather promising predilection for maths during high school, during my final years I moved away from that area of study and towards he humanities. This culminated in studying English, Literature, and Advanced Placement Literature in my senior year. Along side these subjects I also studied Studio Arts: Film.

It is fair to say that I like words.

It is fairer to say that I like communication.

In university I did the dreaded Bachelor of Arts with the even more dreaded English major. I was a double major, however, with my second major being in Comparative Literature Studies; essentially critical theory by another name that serves only to be more complicated to say.

Within this degree I tended to skate by on charisma and talent. Typical stuff. The areas that I excelled at were in poetry. To the extent that I was accepted in to poetry honours after completing my BA.

Again: words and communication. Just now with bonus structures of analysis and thought.

I did not end up doing my poetry honours (although alternate history Llew is probably having fun with his Poetry PhD about now) and instead entered the workforce at the university as a researcher. My task was to research the visual language of the user interfaces of games to see if there was anything we could glean for a product we were developing.

More communication. This time with the joy of exploring exactly why and how PowerPoint was terrible.
When this time of gainful employment came to an end I decided to undertake a Master of Business, with a specialisation in Marketing.  Eighteen months later here I am having completed said degree. 

I tell you this history because it is important to my overall conception of marketing as well as the approach I took to the study of marketing during my Masters.  Similarly it affected my approach to my study of management, similarly it affected my approach to my study of ethics, and critical thinking, and so forth, and so on.  Whilst it was my weaker area of study during my undergrad my history of critical theory has been helpful, as it has allowed me to utilise multiple lenses for the analysis of information.  It is in this way that my approach to marketing is best understood. 

Marketing is not advertising; advertising is a function of marketing.  Marketing, similarly, is not event sponsorship, nor direct mail, nor the salesperson you buy your ice cream from (although these composite elements do make up Integrated Marketing Communications, but that is a different discussion). 

Similarly marketing is not focus groups, it is not surveys, or databases, or data mining, nor networking. 

It is not the product, it is not the price, it is not the place, it is not the promotion (4 P’s 4 eva). 

To distil marketing down to any of these aspects is to focus on the tree instead of the forest.  At best it is a needlessly metonymic approach to reducing complexity, whilst at worst it is a damaging disservice to the complexity of what is fundamentally a holistic approach.  This is because marketing is a lens through which we can attempt to make sense of the world. Marketing is much like any other system of thought, or structure of concepts, or value system; it is a tool that can be utilised to decipher and to form the basis for decision-making. 

Now, this decision-making tends to take place on the corporate level; if not the corporate level then the consumer-seller dyad.  Similarly the concepts and behaviours marketing is helpful for making sense of typically reside in these areas. My area of particular interest – consumer behaviour – is one of the subsets of marketing that is somewhat helpful in this regard.  I am not so foolhardy as to suggest that we can use marketing to solve all of life’s problems or anything to that effect.  I’m not THAT GUY.  
Everyone hates that guy anyway.  I certainly wouldn’t suggest its usage to examine ethics, for example (Rawls is much more fun for that).  But it is a philosophy of sorts that can be enacted at each level of an organisation or each stage of a product’s development. 

It is this philosophy that I’ve spent almost a thousand words building towards.  I am nothing if not verbose, as it turns out.  Asking me vague questions is like asking Kasparov to pass the salt when the tablecloth has a chequered pattern, or asking a Sagan-ite to bake you a pie.  Context is required.  Scaffolding.  Foundations.  Other buzzwords.  However this context is required to allow me to explain what I consider to be the fundamental function of marketing.  The question that reduces all complexity in much the same way that I raged against barely two paragraphs ago. 

What Is Value Here?

Value is the central concept of marketing.  What is valued here, and by whom?  How do we create value? How do we communicate value?  How do we deliver value?  All decisions must be made with value in mind.  This brings us to the next step. 

What People Value is What is Valuable.

Why yes I do like sounding like a fortune cookie, thank you for asking.  Try the beef and black bean.  Essentially what we must accept is that for things to be valuable people must value them.  This seems obvious on the surface but one sees it ignored regularly by any number of individuals, companies, charities, governments, and so forth.  People have to care.  Moreover, we – for better or worse – live in a capitalist society, so not only do people have to care, they have to be willing to meet the costs of our value proposition. 

Think VHS vs Betamax.  Think Minidiscs.  Think GUIs vs terminals.  Think the mouse vs the keyboard, and touch screens vs the mouse.  Think Political Party A vs Political Party B. 

There may be other value propositions that are objectively superior but if you cannot communicate that value effectively then they have essentially no value. 

And here you were thinking that all that stuff about words, languages, and communication earlier was just a waste of time.  Chekov’d. 

This is an extremely roundabout way of exploring the fact that I view marketing as customer focused communication.  And effective communication is based more on listening than speaking.  Based on building a shared understanding with the recipient of the communication.  Again, this all seems obvious, yet so many fail to embrace this to its fullest extent.  Whether it be because of time, money, misunderstanding, or just not wanting to put in the effort. 

Marketing is not about what you want to say. 

Communication is not about what you want to say.

It is about what you want the recipient to hear. 

These are not the same things.  Always remember that.