Language and Manipulation: How the Right Words Exert Influence
Language is the primary means by which humans communicate. Languages are structured systems, usually featuring words and grammatical rules. We all learn to use language to one extent or another. But some of us become incredibly skilled at utilising language to our advantage.
The more you learn about language, the easier it is to see just how powerful it can be. Those who seek to influence others or to gain power can employ a variety of linguistic tactics to shape the thoughts of their audience. Many of these tactics may be less than obvious to the uninitiated.
It’s important to understand how our thoughts and even our behaviour can be manipulated by others and without us realising that we have been subjected to such control.
In Logic and Conversation (1975), Paul Grice, an English philosopher of language, introduced his four conversational maxims. These were a means to explain how people can achieve effective communication in everyday situations:
Maxim of Quality
Maxim of Quantity
Maxim of Relevance
Maxim of Manner
In short, Grice identified that effective everyday communication should involve being truthful, informative, relevant, and clear.
Politicians, journalists and anyone who wishes to manipulate their audience will inevitably violate at least some of Grice’s maxims every time they open their mouths, put their pens to paper or begin typing on their keyboards.
The phrase smoke and mirrors may originally have referred to the work of magicians. But these days it could certainly be applied to the dark art of manipulating others with carefully chosen words.
The media can heavily influence our thinking and behaviour simply by putting a carefully conceived twist on the facts at hand. Journalists are so skilled at doing this that most of us won’t notice that any twist has been applied.
Both members of the British royal family were photographed while pregnant holding their baby bumps. It was clearly a fact that both women exhibited this behaviour. Had the pictures been accompanied by headlines such as “Duchess holds baby bump” or “Princess touches baby bump”, we would have been left to formulate our own opinions on the matter. But the headlines were as follows:
“Pregnant Kate tenderly cradles her baby bump”
“Why can’t Meghan keep her hands off her baby bump?……is it pride, vanity, acting or a new age bonding technique?”
Only when comparing the two headlines does it become obvious that a positive spin has been placed on the comment about the Princess of Wales while a very negative spin has been applied to the comment about the Duchess.
It is also a fact that both women eat avocados. You might wonder why this is important. The truth is that the eating of the fruit isn’t important at all unless you happen to be a journalist looking for a good way to influence people’s thoughts about the relative merits of the royals. These were the headlines about avocados:
“Kate’s morning sickness cure”
“Meghan Markle’s beloved avocado linked to human rights abuse”
So, there you have it. Eating avocados is either a great idea or a terrible one, depending on who is eating them. It’s easy to think that we are free to form our own opinions when, in truth, our thoughts are being subtly manipulated every time we read a newspaper or a social media post.
Journalists and social media influencers principally manipulate our opinions via the words they choose to describe people, situations and things. The manipulation is often incredibly subtle and can fall beneath our radars.
Politicians are also adept at using language to manipulate us. If political speeches are to be powerful, many linguistic devices must be employed. Political persuasion involves doing a lot more with words than explaining why an avocado might be problematic.
Politicians must become skilled in the use of the following techniques:
- The rule of three
Speeches become more powerful if an idea is repeated three times or if an argument features three elements. For instance, “Education, education, education” (Tony Blair) or “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln”).
- Contrasting Pairs
The use of contrasting pairs can create tension and that tension invites the audience to take sides rather than to position themselves on the middle ground. Such statements are a way of saying “you are either with me or against me”.
- Choice of pronouns
Those seeking to influence will often use the first person plural pronouns “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me”.
- Hyperbole and emotive language
Describing something as disgusting or depraved rather than unpleasant or immoral is more likely to inspire outrage.
- Leading questions
It’s the oldest sales trick in the book! Those who seek to be persuasive will ask questions which give their audience little option but to say “yes” or “no”. For example, “Inflation has fallen 2%. That’s fantastic, isn’t it?”
- Variable tone
When politicians deliver speeches, they tend to use a wide vocal range. They speak using diverse pitches and intensities. This tactic ensures that they appeal to the widest possible audience and that they can place greater emphasis on the points they wish to hammer home.
Politicians often use imperative phrases or sentences such as “act now” to inspire action.
Saying the same thing twice but in different ways can help to emphasise a point – “this isn’t acceptable, indeed it is entirely unacceptable”.
- Metaphors and Similes
Any form of comparison gives a speaker the opportunity to render a message understandable to all but also to manipulate perceptions or to limit expectations. There’s a world of difference between the phrases “we have been hit by a number of issues” and “we have been hit by a tsunami of problems”.
- Alliteration and assonance
The use of repeated consonants or vowel sounds can imbue a speech with greater impact and render it more memorable.
We are all inundated with information every day. Television programmes, politicians, newspapers, magazines and online content all feed us continually with stories, the latest news and ideas. But how often do we pause to think about how those messages are delivered and which words have been used?
There are many ways to express almost anything. The language that is chosen can make all the difference to how any message is received and understood.