To understand any big, messy concept, the human brain turns unconsciously to mental shortcuts—what we call conceptual metaphors or frames.

Take the economy: We talk about it accelerating or sputtering; on track, going into the ditch, or crashing, like the whole thing is some kind of object in motion. Or we hear it’s thriving, flat on its back, needing resuscitation—as if the economy were a living body. Sometimes, the dollar “falls” and unemployment “rises”—like magic, all on their own!

As cognitive linguistics expert and communications strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio reminds us, these familiar expressions aren’t merely flowery language; our words actually shape what people think the economy is, how it should work, and what economic policies seem logical or right.

For example, if the economy is understood as a natural force—like a body or the weather, the veiled message is: hands off. After all, a body should be free to do its own thing, right? If it’s truly ailing, we might head to the ER, but otherwise we assume it will take care of itself and heal on its own. In terms of policy, interventions like rules and regulations may come across as unnecessary or irksome.

On the other hand, to function properly, the economy as a human-made object—and especially a moving vehicle—logically requires maintenance and responsible operators. As Anat writes, “These are the very assumptions we wish people would make about our economy. Namely, that it requires capable, continuous, external control.”

This month’s Flashcard: Anat’s DOs and DON’Ts for talking about economic policy solutions.
Special thanks to Anat Shenker-Osorio for sharing her research and for her help writing this Flashcard. Click here to read more about Anat Shenker-Osorio and her work.

Click here for Shenker-Osorio’s in-depth research memo (PDF)>>

Can we break our own bad habits? Take a look at Sightine’s own counter-productive framing, with new, improved rewrites>>

The Flashcard—DOs and DON’Ts

Language to Embrace

Language to Avoid

Reinforce notions of the economy as HUMAN-MADE, complex systems like machines or vehicles that are designed, built, maintained, and operated by people–for people. Steer clear of language that reinforces the economy as NATURAL, a living body that’s organic, self-regulating, separate, or independent. Avoid implying the economy or its subcomponents (markets, banks, the dollar) has agency or autonomy.
Types of expressions to use: function, construct, foundation, steer a steady course, signal. On course, on track, moving forward, going where we want to go, don’t leave behind, obstruct progress, pave the way for / stand in the way of economic progress. Words to avoid: ailing, sick, suffering, unhealthy, vigorous, thriving; cripple, revive, resuscitate.
Sentence structure: Put people, not abstractions, in the driver’s seat as subjects. Bankers took risks with our money. People lost their jobs.Click here for more on Language to Embrace (PDF)>> Sentence structure: Don’t put economic terms in sentences’ subject position. The economy shed jobs. Dollars at work. The market will decide. Unemployment is at an all time high. Financial markets were over-leveraged.Click here for more on Language to Avoid (PDF)>>

Who Said It?

Icon of person and question mark“Still, most economic reporting seems to abide by the fiction that “the economy” is somehow separate from—and perhaps more important than—the well-being of the people who participate in it.” — Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry. Read more>>

September 29, 2011