The content/meaning distortion

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Posting from the lounge in Cologne/Bonn airport after a meeting with a potential client around supporting a leadership/collaboration approach addressing and using some key issues around nationality and function. (At some point it will no doubt be worth a separate blog. But now’s not that point.) I don’t recall ever having been to Bonn before, but it’s a city that feels like it’s lost much of its identity since Berlin reclaimed the role of Germany’s capital.

One of the key elements to the approach that Narrate uses when collecting stories is the “signification framework”. Essentially we ask people to give us an experience or example and then place that example/story/experience into a framework. It allows them to attach meaning to the qualitative material they give us – in ways that allow others to understand their meaning without interpreting the material itself. It’s a human process – “tell me how you see your story” – that prevents them being mis- or re-interpreted by supposed experts.

The problem is that most people assume that the meaning of a story is in the content – that the words that people use are enough to understand. From my experience, it’s not true – and huge amounts of meaning can be read into tiny details that are superfluous, while big themes are missed because of a cultural mis-match.

Let me give you three examples (there are others) where the content does not match the meaning:

Metaphor, irony/sarcasm and in-group evolution of language

Have you seen Star Trek? In particular, do you remember the original William Shatner/Leonard Nimoy version? If so, you’ll recognise the sort of situation they find themselves in here:

A quick glance at the picture makes one individual apparent – the guy at the back in the red shirt. As any regular Star Trek watcher will tell you, wearing a red shirt is not a good idea if you’re beaming down the planet – he won’t be beaming back up… In this instance, “red shirt” is less a fashion observation as a statement about life expectancy. And metaphors are one thing that can’t be picked up accurately by experts, far less some of the automated content analysis systems – there’s just no way to parse the various meanings.


The second example comes from the very first Children of the World pilot in Pakistan and UK back in 2009. In response to this picture,
a young man wrote:

the way these children are play with one another the same way the pakistani goverment is playing with the pushtuns of NWFP talib is only a name and its a game of the goverment .civilians are dying who are neither on the side of the taliban or of the goverment . if you want opnion then Islamic laws should be implimented in pakistan as soon as possible to run the systam of the goverment efficiently and al the terrorism and corruption would end in a very short time

(A tip for anyone collecting these narratives – if it hasn’t got typos or grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, then it’s not authentic. If it’s neatly written, someone’s been tidying up things that you want left messy.)

Now, at first glance, this is a worrying response to the picture to anyone here in the West. This looks like a young man who is being attracted to a radicalised viewpoint. But – knowing that the meaning is not in the content – I looked instead at the meta-data, the signification framework to understand what he was saying.

First off, the title he gave this story was “Joke“. Still ambiguous – is it that his government is a joke? Or that this story is a joke?

Looking deeper – one of the questions we regularly ask is “Who should hear this story?” Options usually range from “The whole world/My leaders/My community/My friends/No one in particular“. Another is “How does this story make you feel?

Now, if this was a heartfelt plea for more Islamic law, I would expect that “The Whole World” or at least “My leaders” should hear it. And that it would prompt some fairly strong emotions.

In this case, however, “My friends” should hear this – and he felt “Meh” about it – not bothered. It’s still not 100% certainty, but it looks far more as if this piece is A joke – sarcasm and irony are things that get missed by experts and textual analysis that presume that every word is meant exactly as it appears.

Social Context

The final issue in interpreting content is the most crucial – the evolution of language, particularly within groups. It happens very quickly and can carry lots of layers of meaning. Let me give you an example from my family.

There’s a simple four-word phrase that means very different things to different generations of my family. The phrase is, on the face of it, pretty unambiguous:

“Dad’s mowing the lawn”

To standard approaches, that would imply an interest in gardening, along with a decision to keep said garden in good condition. However…

When I was growing up, coming downstairs to be told by a sibling “Dad’s mowing the lawn” was code for “he’s got a major problem from work that he’s thinking about.” One of the ways he dealt with these was walking up and down the lawn in rigid straight lines, almost meditatively. (If he started to do side-to-side mowing as well, you knew the problem must be a real hum-dinger.)

To my kids, however, if one comes downstairs to be told “Dad’s mowing the lawn” that’s code for “Give it twenty minutes, make a cup of tea and take it out to him. But be prepared to duck.” I have a garden at a 45 degree angle – personally I think it works really well as a meadow, but occasionally I get “encouraged” to go out and cut it. It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone (although I have in the past year managed to get elder daughter enthused about how grown-up it is to be allowed to cut the lawn…)

So – three examples where standard approaches would be misinterpreting the content of narratives. Metaphor, irony and sarcasm and family use/adaptation of language.

It’s why, when we collect, we have to collect the meaning in a neat envelope that wraps around the story. Of which more in due course.

1 Comment

Cynthia Kurtz · 5 February 2013 at 9:18 pm

Hey Tony, great post. When I see this sort of thing I get a warm fuzzy feeling because, not to toot my own horn or anything but, this was my idea and I’m kinda proud of it. I’m so glad to see it living a healthy and happy life out there in the world. 🙂

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