In April this year, as the people of India were trying to come to terms with an overwhelming spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, Washington Post Journalist Annie Gowen tweeted a shocking photo of an open-air crematorium in New Delhi with the caption “Stunning photo of funeral pyres in Delhi…”. She was immediately attacked by politicians, journalists, and citizens from India and around the world for her choice of words. People mostly felt that her use of the word “stunning” was not only inappropriate but also propagated an imperialist and racist narrative toward the developing world. Did Ms. Gowen use an inappropriate word? Technically speaking, no. By using the word “stunning”, she was simply implying that the image was in fact shocking. But that is not how it was interpreted because meaning is contextual, and it cares very little for technicality. In the aftermath of the immense criticism she received, Ms. Gowen tweeted once again clarifying the technical definition of the word “stunning” to justify her language in the tweet.
What she failed to realize is that what something means is rarely governed just by what some dictionary or technical literature says it means. Meaning is dependent on the context a word gets placed into most often, and the way in which it is used commonly in language. If you examine the analytics around the word “stunning,” you will find that it is most often used in the context of implied beauty. For example, according to Google Trends when people search the word stunning, they are often referring to people, music, movies, spaces, and travel destinations. All these contexts are positive and joyful expressions of beauty. The more the word gets used in such contexts, the more it creates a mental image in the mind of people as being a pointer to something that is celebrated, not mourned.
What things mean are constantly changing and evolving in culture. And that has significant implications for the language we use when trying to describe an idea, communicate a benefit, or tell a story. Those that struggle to wrap their minds around the idea of changing meaning will often have to deal with disastrous outcomes. Just ask Burger King.
The restaurant company launched a series of campaigns in early March across multiple countries with the tagline “Women belong in the kitchen”. While the intent of the campaign was to create a conversation about the under-representation of women in professional kitchens, it did exactly the opposite. It inadvertently gave a voice to a whole crowd of consumers who agreed with the misogynistic interpretation of the statement, which in turn also angered the progressive consumers who were appalled by the cultural insensitivity demonstrated by the Burger King brand. Once again, intention did not match interpretation because no one chose to ask the question – “what would just a statement mean or imply to audiences?” If they had, they would have realized that humor is not one of the implied outcomes of such a statement in today’s polarized cultural environment.
As a cultural anthropologist, I am preoccupied with the study of meaning. Learning to ask, “what does this mean?” teaches us to be discerning in our use of language, which in turn also helps us learn more about the world and appreciate its nuances and idiosyncrasies. But to think through the lens of meaning, we must internalize three important rules.
The first rule is that meaning is rarely technical and often illogical. For example, if you examine the meanings around Gut Health in the United States, you will find that it is anything but scientifically sound. Yet these interpretations, of the value of Gut Health to our lives, exist and drive purchase decisions among millions of people every day.
The second rule is that meaning is never fixed. It is always changing. We therefore must be prepared to evolve our understanding of a topic, idea, issue, or trend.
The third and final rule is that meaning can be contradictory. That is, there could easily be two opposing interpretations of an idea and they could very well co-exist in culture. For example, if you look at the meanings around organic food, you will find two interpretations of its value to the sustainability movement. One that is positive and the other that is negative, focusing on food waste and the inefficiency of land use. Both these meanings co-exist, which indicates that if we choose to pursue one angle, we will always need to be prepared to deal with the threats posed by the other.
Mastering the lens of meaning does not just make us better communicators and marketers, it makes us better prepared as innovators and leaders. It allows us to understand why things are the way they are.
And understanding is often the first step to building empathy.
Want to learn more? Watch this 4 minute introduction to structural anthropology and learn about how we study and measure the changing nature of what things mean in culture.