What is linguistic anthropology and how can it help?

Linguistic anthropologists help people understand the ways that  language expresses social meaning.

On the one hand, everyone has a finely tuned sense of the social meaning embedded in language, especially when we have face-to-face conversations. As adults, we’ve been trained for years to understand the subtle cues that let us know how people think about themselves, how they feel about us, and how they feel about the things that they’re talking about. We may leave a conversation thinking, “Oh, he didn’t like me one bit,” or “Well, she thinks she’s very fancy,” or “Boy, they’re really excited about that stuff.”

But on the other hand, we misinterpret social meanings all the time, especially when there are more than one set of rules at play.

We interpret social cues according to the set of rules we were socialized into, rules that are so implicit that they just seem natural and normal and like the way things are supposed to be. So implicit that we don’t recognize that someone else may have been raised with a different set of rules, and is encoding and sending out social meaning in a different way. We may end up drawing conclusions about their personality (self-centered!), their intelligence (not so quick), or their affect (so emotional!). And these conclusions may be completely wrong.

In addition, we all have unconscious bias, and this bias is expressed most frequently through language. The people expressing their unconscious biases through language almost never realize that they are doing it. And, without some education as to why seemingly innocuous or light-hearted comments can actually be problematic and are linked to systematic patterns, people don’t change their linguistic behaviors. This can lead to all kinds of problems, including workplaces that feel hostile to women, people of color, LGTBQ workers, and people with disabilities.

Linguistic anthropology is a social science that is centered on language, culture, and social meaning. Training based on linguistic anthropology teaches people how to recognize systematic patterns in speech and writing, and how to analyze communication issues that arise from either a culture clash or from expressions of unconscious bias. Linguistic anthropology helps people see the world in a new way, and to better understand the people around them.

Some concrete examples of ways linguistic anthropology can help:

1. Diversity and inclusion training. We've found that language-based communication that brings in ideas about diversity and inclusion can avoid the backlash or negative consequences that sometimes arise from diversity discussions. Also, learning about language, why it matters, and how to send the social message you want to send leaves people feeling empowered and like they have concrete and comprehensible steps they can take.

2. Legal consulting. Legal training and practice tends to focus on semantics, but we also encode meaning in how we say things. Linguistic anthropologists can serve as consultants or expert witnesses and help build lawyers' cases. We can help explain why someone didn't "just say no," or decode patterns or messages of bias in performance reviews, emails, and other documents. This can be especially useful in cases involving sexual assault, sexual harassment, discrimination, and racial profiling.

3. Identifying and solving problems with business communication. Doctor/patient interactions that go badly and result in negative reviews on websites. Meetings that don't seem to go well and leave people feeling annoyed or angry.  Websites and recruiting materials that send the wrong message. Presentations that don't land the way you want them to. Needing to communicate with people from another cultural background and not wanting to make mistakes. Linguistic anthropology can help with all of these and more.