we don’t need words as much as we think

most marketing professionals tend to over-index on words. yes, they convey meaning. but we also often see that one word can have different meanings for different people based on their socio-cultural environment, level of expertise in a matter, or their past experiences. so relying on words to communicate an idea or meaning is very often too limiting. especially if you are working in a global environment, and not confined to a single-language space where everyone has more or less the same background.

and most of us have already experienced this when encountering someone who doesn’t speak the same language. pointing at your wrist with an ignorant look on your face is pretty internationally understood as asking for the time. moving your thumb up and down with a cigarette in your mouth is usually asking for fire.

here is a personal example. a few years ago, I was visiting a Romanian friend in her country. one of the evenings I was there, she wanted us to join a group of friends for a birthday celebration. I knew it would be very interesting as they were all Romanians and my knowledge of that language was very – very very – limited. still, at one point of the evening as we were all sitting around a table enjoying our meal, one of her friends asked, in Romanian, for the ketchup. I naturally reached out for it and gave it to him. they all stopped and looked at me. one of them asked in Romanian: “do you speak Romanian?” I looked at him with a big question mark on my face. he repeated the question in English. I answered “no”. and their silence continued. “so how did you understand that he wanted the ketchup?”, one of them asked. and I answered in the most simple way: “we are all eating, ketchup is the only sauce on the table and it would go very well with the fries he has in his plate, plus, he pointed at it when saying something that sounded like a question.” so, I did not have to understand the words to know it was a question, the context was pretty obvious, and his body language did the rest.

so even if we do not speak the same language, we are more or less wired the same way. mostly because we are all – wait for it… human. with emotions. and responding to sensorial stimulations.

here is another example coming from Disney and Star Wars. I’ve always been amazed at how they were able to give live and personality to droids – just like Lotus gave live to a coffee cup. you never know what they say, but you get what they mean. and if you know Star Wars, sometimes, you can even put words on their beeps. just like when Chopper, the orange robot in Star Wars Rebels, said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in this sequence:

so context, body language and variations in someone’s voice – which are also called paralinguistics, can communicate things even without words. actually, Professor Albert Mehrabian calculated that words would represent 7% of the message that is communicated, while 38% is done through paralinguistics and the remaining 55% by our facial expressions. those are also often referred to as verbal, non-verbal and body language. while the percentages themselves can be discussed, the idea remains valid.

what is even more interesting about this theory is how paralinguistics and body language can completely overshadow the words that are being used or change their meaning. I’ll use as proofpoint one of the most famous and beloved manipulators of all times: Mary Poppins. have a look at how the air of her “Stay Awake” song and her facial expressions get kids to fall asleep when the lyrics themselves are completely contradictory.

so besides words, or even instead of words, look at the best and the most human and universal way to communicate what you mean.

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