“Yet we, that is, even philosophers, set some limits to the amount of nonsense that we are prepared to admit we talk.”
~J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (1955)
In my research on small talk at work, I focus mostly on how the words we use to communicate can lack substance but still be meaningful. Importantly, though, most of the research on language in organizations over the last quarter century has been concerned with how language can translate into “getting things done.”
In their fascinating recent article, “’How to Do Things with Words’: Mechanisms Bridging Language and Action in Management Research,” Drs. Christi Lockwood, Simona Giorgi, and Mary Ann Glynn reviewed various “word assemblages” to reveal the themes and mechanisms that link words to action in organizations. They show that employees and leaders use language in various forms, including framing—simplifying and coding information to convey a preferred meaning—and storytelling—causally linked sequences of events to construct a narrative. They show that these forms of language can be used to foster collaboration, build personal connections, promote positive social evaluations, create shared realities, and catalyze action.
What I found the most interesting was the role of language in constructing or changing what others think of us. The authors explain that these effects occur when speakers effectively use words that resonate with their audience by creating an emotional connection that aligns with their audiences’ feelings and desires. Altogether, the types of words we use and how we employ them to engage our colleagues impact perceptions of authenticity, trustworthiness, and legitimacy, and can ultimately create or compromise high quality connections.
So, keep this in mind when you speak up in meetings, ask a favor from a colleague, or compose an email—your words can compel (or not!) actions by and evaluations from others.