Narrative Madness: The Influence of Narrative Language on Perception and Behavior

You’re crazy! By that, I mean you cannot easily distinguish fiction from reality, and you let delusions brought on by narrative influence your perception and behavior. Like Don Quixote, you wander lost through clouds of story. The madness, however, is generative because narrative language is the principle means by which humans understand and reshape ourselves and our world.

Gustave Doré

Names

In the book Narrative Madness (which you can get at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon), I show how names, like mine, Ronald B. Richardson, encode stories of how we are expected to behave, stories which we usually act out. Family names announce a culture. While a culture’s body of rules is not absolute, culture tends to direct and limit communication, attitudes about self, perception of environment, belief systems, social interaction, and behavior. Names do not create culture, of course, but they do act as cultural identifiers, affecting identity. Last names also indicate a place within a family structure. Families are miniature cultures with their own rules, behavior, and language.

First names frequently announce a gender, influencing colors, costumes, toys, words, hand gestures, attitudes and jobs. Our parents often choose names that describe characteristics they hope we will adopt, like “Faith” or “Justice.” Parents don’t name us “Meathead” or “Sissy,” at least not at first.

Besides proper names, nicknames also get attached. Here are some of mine: The (which stood for “the handsome boy, the righteous boy, the hardworking boy”), Little Lonny Leaguer (unfortunately derived from Ronald Reagan), Ronald McDonald, Donno, Duck, the Do-Ron-Ron, Bob (Boy on Bus), Storm, Man Prop, Ronosaurus Rex, and Spongy. Each of these names say something about how others see me or expect me to behave, or how I want to portray myself.

Words

Many labels get slapped onto our backs, such as race, which still affects our economic opportunities in the land of equality. Other story words soon follow: “He’s a thumb-sucker, a brother, a playmate, a middle child, a dreamer, a tattletale, a friend, a saint, a nerd, a writer, a Taurus, a rebel, a hippie, a joker, a teacher, a boyfriend, a ghoul.” Of course, we are not restrained by our labels: liberals may vote like fascists and doctors may act like lovers. Roles are never absolute. But when we step outside of familiar roles, we startle, shock and scandalize.

All names are fictions, including the one that is closest to myself, that intimate name of names, my name for myself. For even the precious word “I” – which rises like a monolith above my head, promising singularity and unity – is an invented word, not a natural concept. “I” is not a human, but a sign that refers to a fragment of a person at a particular time, playing a particular role. In the words of poet Arthur Rimbaud, “‘I’ is other.” From the vantage point of this slim fiction, I experience the universe. (Read more about this fictional personna in my post The Artificial ‘I.’)

Language does not restrict what you think about, but it does establish habits of thought. Our languages force us to acknowledge certain aspects of our surroundings, so we are more likely to be aware of them than other language-users that do not have such words. Language influences conceptions of gender. Linguist Guy Deutscher writes about an experiment in which people of various nationalities were asked to ascribe a human voice to objects, as in an animated movie: “When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice” (Begley). Naturally, such conceptions will also influence design.

Languages are full of gender designations, and the more there are in a language, the more quickly speakers of that language form gender identity: “Hebrew marks gender prolifically (even the word ‘you’ is different depending on gender), Finnish has no gender marking and English is somewhere in between,” explains Alexander Guiora, professor of psychology, psychiatry and linguistics. Not surprisingly, “children growing up in a Hebrew-speaking environment figure out their own gender about a year earlier than Finnish-speaking children; English-speaking kids fall in the middle” (quoted in Boroditsky 65). Gender awareness grows out of language.

Even human understanding of space is affected by language. In European languages, we give directions in egocentric terms, depending on the direction the speaker is facing: “left,” “right,” “in front of,” and “behind.” Deutscher describes an aboriginal language, Guugu Yimithirr from northern Queensland in Australia, which has no words for “left” and “right.” Instead, speakers of the language refer to cardinal directions: “To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, ‘I left it on the southern edge of the western table.’” Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr must know every moment of their lives where the cardinal directions lie. Because of this habitual way of thinking about direction, “speakers of geographic language seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation” (Deutscher). When blindfolded and spun around in a windowless room, Guugu Yimithirr speakers were still quite good at pointing out the directions, but English speakers failed miserably, says Deutscher.

Language also influences our conception of time. In English, the future is ahead of us and the past behind. In English, we move away from the past and everything we can see into an unknown future, as if we were riding backward on a horse, seeing only where we have been. In contrast, in the Aymara language from the Andes, the past is in front (where it can be seen) and the future is behind (and thus invisible). We can barely even conceive of having the past in front of us and the future behind us, since such a view goes against deeply ingrained concepts of time. (Read more about the influence of language on perception and behavior in my post How Language Speaks You.)

Grammar

 How does the structure of a sentence affect our perception of the world? “I did something” separates the “I” from the “something.” Thus, life is experienced through a division between “I” and “other”: “I act upon the world and the world acts upon me.” Because of sentence structure, we speak of internal and external worlds, me and you, us and them. Even those who believe in the transparency of language describe it as a window separating them from the world.

The structure of a sentence also tends to endow subjects with life and intention. When we say “The car won’t start,” it seems as though the car is stubbornly refusing. “Won’t” is a contraction for “will not,” implying will or intention. Here are some other examples of sentences that seem to imbue the subject with intention (as suggested by friends): “The wind blew my wig off,” “The clock is running slow,” “The beans gave me gas,” and “Where’d that pencil go?”

Let’s look at some other languages to see how the structure of sentences influences thinking. In Japanese, if I were introducing myself in a professional setting, I would say something like, “Mitsubishi no Richardson Ron desu” (Mitsubishi’s Richardson Ron am I). The placement of company before family and family name before given name shows an attitude toward society in which the larger group is more important than the individual. In English, we almost always start with ourselves, implying an intense egocentrism.

Language also affects how we view responsibility. While English speakers say, “He broke it,” Spanish and Japanese speakers say something like “It broke itself.” In an experiment by Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese were shown videos of “two guys popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally.” Both groups remembered equally well who was responsible for deliberate acts, but when it came to accidents, English speakers were much more aware of who was involved. Since they remembered and described the event “agentively” (“Tom broke the vase”), they could remember who caused the accident with much higher accuracy. Notice how the statement “Someone caused the accident” makes it seem as if they intended to do so. This is why English-speakers always ask, “Who’s to blame? Who’s to blame?”

Our ability to prepare for the future is also affected by grammar, argues behavioral economist Keith Chen. He claims that speakers of languages like English that distinguish between present and future tenses “cleave the future from the present,” making it harder for them to save money. Speakers of languages like Mandarin Chinese do not dissociate the future and the present, so it is easier to save. Considering also health behavior, Chen discovered that speakers of futureless languages were able to make better long-term health decisions. “If savings is current pain in exchange for future pleasure,” Chen says, “smoking is just the opposite. It’s current pleasure in exchange for future pain.” Subjects who spoke futureless languages were 20 – 24% less likely to smoke, 13 – 17% less likely to be obese, and 21% more likely to have used condoms during their last sexual encounter.

In spite of its power, linguistic coding isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It saves us from having to reinvent the world every time we speak. Each language “contains a way of perceiving, categorizing and making meaning in the world, an invaluable guidebook developed and honed by our ancestors” (Boroditsky 65). Information encoded in our languages helps us to comprehend ourselves, others and our surroundings and provides us with many historically and culturally tested insights. A person would be mad to throw out all this valuable information, although it would be helpful to know how our perception and behavior is affected by our languages.

Understanding the narrative language you use can help you understand yourself – can help you understand how and why you think and act the way you do. Instead of letting your names, labels, words and sentences write you, you will be able to rewrite (or at least partially revise) them.

Works Cited

Begley, Sharon. “What’s in a Word? Language May Shape Our Thoughts.” Newsweek 9 July 2009. MSNBC. Web. 23 June 2010.

Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes Thought: The Languages We Speak Affect our Perceptions of the World.” Scientific American. 20 January 2011. Web. 8 October 2010.

Chen, Keith. “Could Language Affect Your Ability to Save Money?” Ted.com. Ted Global. June 2012. Web. 10 June 2013.

Deutscher, Guy. “Does Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times Magazine. 26 August 2010: 42 – 47. Web. 6 October 2010.

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