Meaning Guide

What are you talking about? Meaning and pseudo-meaning

Jargon starts out as the communication of technical concepts, but it quickly becomes at least as important that ‘we are the people who speak like this’.  Just one example of how substance-level meaning and identity-level meaning get mixed up …

Getting in people’s way

When I first starting commuting to London, I noticed that if I stared intently at something in the distance while walking through a moving crowd, most people would magically move out of my way without me having to move out of their’s [1].  I was reading Heidegger at the time, and one of Heidegger’s ideas was that other people “show up” in (big over-simplification) two different ways – as physical bodies and as sentient beings.  So I wondered if maybe this was an example of what he was talking about:  That when I vaguely made eye contact with people I showed up to them like a person and we would negotiate our way around one another, but when I stared up in the air I was more like a thing, an obstacle to avoid bumping into.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think eye contact is definitely a crossover point between the two.  This is hard-wired into us from birth – as we look out at the world, most things are just things, but some things look back at us.  Try making eye contact with a stranger on a train for half a second and see what happens.  It’s a bit mysterious – two bodies shuffling for space on a train carriage briefly turn into something fundamentally different, a “you and I”, until you look away again [2].

What this points to is a fundamental duality in experience, with eye contact as the inflection point between the two.  We are (1) physical bodies interacting with the physical world around us, and (2) intangible egos interacting with those around us (and the divine, if like me you believe in such things [3]).

What does this mean?

I’ve written previously that meaning is the feeling we get when our mental models come into line with our experience of the world.  So if the world shows up as a combination of these two factors – physical substance and personal identity – then all meaning is going to reflect some combination of the two as well.

We tend to think of the “who am I?” question separately from the “what am I?” question, but as far as our brains are concerned they are two facets of the same challenge – how to build a useful model of you-in-the-world.  If I see you more as a physical object (substance) then I will move out of your way, but if I see you as a sentient creature (identity) then I will assume we can both perform the “commuter dance” collaboratively (and only notice when it goes wrong – “let’s-move-out-of-each-other’s-way-oh-wait-oh-dear-sorrysorry”).

The point of this article is to explore the proposition that this duality pervades all meaning.  For example:

  • An IKEA instruction manual tells me how to assemble a bookshelf (substance), but it also tells me at the same time that I am the sort of person who has IKEA furniture (identity);
  • The specification of a car model tells me how fast it goes, what it can do, how much it costs (substance) but also tells me the kind of things I’m attracted to – practicality, beauty, power, exclusivity etc. (identity)

And why is this useful?

When you analyse meaning at work through this lens, a bunch of incoherent things start to make sense.  Here are four things I’ve noticed are generally true:

1) Much that appears to be about substance is actually more about identity

Everyday examples:

  • You’re in a meeting and someone is clearly talking twaddle, but everyone listens intently and nods at the key moments.  You nod as well.
  • You see someone you know, you ask how they are, talk about the weather, smile, compliment each other.  The meaning of the exchange has nothing to do with wellbeing, meteorology or appearance, but everything to do with acknowledging mutual bonhomie.
  • A consultant turns in a deliverable for a project milestone.  It is composed of incredibly abstract and hard-to-pin-down prose padded out with dozens of pages copy-pasted from another project.  But it is over 100 pages long, which make the consultant feel worthwhile (mea culpa:  This has been me in the past).
  • Someone tells a joke and you don’t quite hear the punchline, but you laugh with everyone else anyway.  Even though you don’t know what was funny.

2) Much that appears to be about identity is actually more about substance

  • “Dear key stakeholder, great to see you!  How are you!?  How are your kids?  How was your holiday?  Now about that key decision you need to make so that we can proceed with the next stage of our project …”
  • You start talking to someone at a networking event for five minutes with lots of eye contact, smiling, commending.  You soon realise that they will be of no use to you whatsoever, and come up with a plausible excuse for why you are going to go off and talk to someone else instead.  It’s usually OK because the other person is playing the same game, but the momentary discomfort comes from the need to disguise the unspoken reality that the desire for interpersonal connection was actually contingent on material gain.  It seemed to be about identity, but it was really about substance.

3) Identity-meaning is more important to us than substance-meaning

If everything we look at/read/hear simultaneously tells us something about us-in-the-world (substance) and something about us-and-others (identity), then there will inevitably be times when the two are in conflict.  I’ll give an example in a second, but the point I want to emphasise is that given the choice, we will almost invariably go with identity over substance.  We are designed for relationship, so the concern for how we fit into our peer group normally trumps all other concerns.

The example I’ll use to bring this to life is one of my favourite subjects – corporate jargon.  Jargon is fascinating because it wraps up both meaning of substance and meaning of identity in equal measures.

Start by imagining a world where jargon didn’t exist.  Imagine having an emergency operation and finding that the surgeons were describing everything from first principles without any medical jargon.  Jargon is a shorthand that lets you throw around hugely complex ideas at speed, provided you are using it with people who have had similar training / life experiences.

And there’s the rub.  The technical language starts out being about technical content, but it quickly becomes at least as important that “we are the people who speak like this”.  Anyone in the operating theatre with the right medical training knows which instruments, drugs and body parts are being referred to by their colleagues.  Everyone else is excluded from the meaning.

Now compare this to early-stage programme meetings.  Typically the participants don’t yet know what they’re trying to do, have different specialisms so don’t have similar life experiences, but still have the same underlying human need to establish group and individual identity through communication.  Which is way more important than whether what anyone says actually makes any sense.

And so we end up spending huge amounts of time waffling … without acknowledging that this is what’s happening [4].  Our perceived value, status and self-worth are just too bound up in the whole charade for it to be safe to name identity-masquerading-as-substance type talk for what it is.  Some of the waffle sticks, and over time may even come to correspond to something in the world, but it often sticks not because it has substance but because it was first used by someone with social dominance (the project sponsor say), so became an identity marker for everyone else.

I’m not saying every project is like this.  But I am saying that every project is a lot more like this than we might care to acknowledge.  And that’s because …

4) Identity-meaning is harder to talk about than substance-meaning

This should hopefully be obvious, but in case it’s not:

So what?

The take-home message from all this might appear to be that we all need therapy.  Maybe we all do!  Although this post is intended to be observational rather than didactic, here are a few things I’ve found personally helpful about seeing the world in this way:

  • We may not need a full-time therapist, but we do need someone that we can have identity-level conversations with, or else we’re liable to not notice that the distinction even exists, to the detriment of those around us.
  • Given how little honest feedback we tend to get from people about identity-level meaning (point 4 above), we need to take responsibility for our own level of self-awareness. Did I need to name-drop Martin Heidegger at the top of this article?  Did you need to accidentally-on-purpose mention to everyone that you had lunch with someone important?
  • As leaders we need to take responsibility for asking more naïve / experiential questions, especially when kicking off something new: “So what do we actually mean by ______?”  “Explain it to me as though I were a six year-old” etc.  Most people aren’t willing to ask these kinds of blunt questions about the substance of the discussion for fear of being perceived as ignorant, which threatens their identity.  Effective leaders escape the bind by normalising substantive conversation as part of the group identity.

[1] It’s harder to do this these days, because so many people are no longer watching where they’re going because they’re glued to their mobile phone screens.
[2] For a truly profound version of this phenomenon, try holding unbroken eye-contact with a friend for 5 minutes (obviously this requires their consensual agreement). Initially it can cause giggles and blushes, of course, but it can also give rise to a powerful appreciation of each other’s being-ness.
This isn’t just a metaphysical question – different people draw the line of sentience in different places across physical things as well:  Clearly other people “look back at us”, but what about animals?  Or plants?  Or planet earth?  Or the universe?  Where does consciousness begin or end?  Hopefully the fact that I don’t tackle such question here doesn’t stop this from being a useful description of how the world shows up, as my intention is purely to infer some lessons from it about how to make it more meaningful.
[4] As a colleague has eloquently put it “the first rule of waffle club is … you do not … talk … about … waffle club”

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