Doc on Conversational Marketing/Pinker on Words Pushing Emotional Buttons

kinnon —  September 19, 2007 — 1 Comment

Quoted in Doc Searl‘s blog post, Can Marketing be conversational? – from a white paper that Doc helped write for the Conversational Marketing Summit, with points that seem particularly appropriate to the continuing Scornucopia conversation that appears elsewhere on this tiny slice of blog space.

  • The purpose of conversation is to create and improve understanding, not for one party to “deliver messages” to the other. That would be rude.
  • There is no “audience” in a conversation. If we must label others in conversation, let’s call them partners.
  • People in productive conversation don’t repeat what they’re saying over and over. They learn from each other and move topics forward.
  • Conversations are about talking, not announcing. They’re about listening, not surveying. They’re about paying attention, not getting attention. They’re about talking, not announcing.
  • “Driving” is for cars and cattle, not conversation.
  • Conversation is live. Its constantly moving and changing, flowing where the interests and ideas of the participants take it. Even when conversations take the form of email, what makes them live is current interest on both sides.

In one of the comments on the Scornucopia post, Ed Brenegar points to this Virginia Postrel post on Language and Human Nature where she quotes writer Steven Pinker in discussion of his book, The Stuff of Thought:

I think the reason that swearing is both so offensive and so attractive is that it is a way to push people’s emotional buttons, and especially their negative emotional buttons. Because words soak up emotional connotations and are processed involuntarily by the listener, you can’t will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means. You can’t hear a word and just hear it as raw sound; it always evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain. So I think that words give us a little probe into other people’s brains. We can press someone’s emotional buttons anytime we want.

And there’s an additional layer, which would account for the fact that the content of swearing varies across history and from culture to culture. The common denominator is some kind of negative emotion, but the culture and time will determine which negative emotion is commonly provoked, whether it’s disgust at bodily secretions, or dread of deities, or repugnance at sexual perversions. The second, additional layer is that you recognize that the other person is evoking—and is intentionally evoking—that negative emotion, and you know that he knows that you know that he is trying to evoke it. That’s part of why it offends you. And that’s why the choice of word matters, as well as what the word refers to—why “the F word” is obscene, but “copulate” is not, even though they refer to the same thing. But you know when someone uses “copulate,” they’re referring to copulation, whereas when they use the F word, they are trying to get a rise out of you. So there again you get to the pragmatics as well as the semantics.

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

One response to Doc on Conversational Marketing/Pinker on Words Pushing Emotional Buttons

  1. Bill,
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I especially appreciated the wisdom of Doc’s words.

    I think at this point, it would be healthy for each of us to set a boundary concerning what conversations we choose to participate in, choosing to opt out of those that don’t approach the conversation with a minimum of basic respect and courtesy.


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