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Bubble: A light word carrying a world of meaning

Two people sitting at the beach

How the harsh language of lockdown was made palatable with the instruction to form a bubble.

In a nutshell

  1. Bubble was instantly understandable to Kiwis as a finite and encompassing construct. Associated with attractive images and impermanent, the word was suited to the short term job of lockdown. 
  2. The best leaders around the world are using language in ways that enable people to grasp parts of the ongoing story and use it to guide their actions.
  3. Analogies work because our brains use mental shortcuts to understand the world. We don’t process information in a silo. Instead, we look to how it compares to other things.

When we lose the scaffolding that we've carefully constructed to hold our life together, by which I mean, all the habits and shortcut decision making that help us get through the day, we quickly reach cognitive overload. 

We have no established social norms to follow, so we are hungry for clues that will illuminate our path. 

The New Zealand Government, whether or not you agree with their strategy, have been masters of the use of metaphorical language to communicate concepts that are novel and may initially lack specificity. The harsh language of lockdown was made palatable with the instruction to form a bubble.

Bubble was a brilliant choice

Imagine if you'd been told to erect a wall around yourself, lock yourself into a container, or, as with other countries, just told to adhere to a lockdown. Bubble was instantly understandable as a finite and encompassing construct. Bubbles are associated with attractive images. Bubbles are transparent, so although they enclose us, we can still look out at the world around us. Bubbles are soft, so when we push against them, our elbows don't bang on hard surfaces. Instead, the walls flex empathetically. They are ephemeral - suited to the short term job to be done.  

Of late, we've heard that we are halfway down Everest and that we need to stamp on remaining embers. These are meaningful analogies that help us understand what is happening and what we need to do. Organisations can learn from this and especially how words can trigger strong, and sometimes negative, emotions. Our COVID-19 Conversation Monitor saw a spike of fear and anger at the phrase 'go hard, go early'. This may have been the government's intent, but few organisations or brands would want to elicit that type of response. 

Mental shortcuts to understand the world

Our connection through language has given the human species the ability to share ideas, concepts and cultural constructs. Using words to tell stories is the most effective and efficient way to achieve this higher order function, enabling us to connect and collaborate around common challenges. This pandemic is certainly a challenge. The best leaders around the world are using language in ways that enable people to grasp parts of the ongoing story and use it to guide their actions. Analogies work because our brains use mental shortcuts to understand the world. We don’t process information in a silo. Instead, we look to how it compares to other things.

A new narrative for business

Currently, the focus is on public health messaging, however business is being asked to play its part and, in the first instance, they can anchor to the analogies in the public domain. Yet, as time passes they will need to find their own ways of cutting through and owning a distinctive narrative. Moreover that narrative will need to reflect new ways of thinking about their place in society, new societal values, and culturally relevant messaging.

Companies will need to think carefully about the language they use around new working practices. When I hear the phrase ‘remote working’ the associations that come to mind are distance, isolated, cold. Whereas ‘working from home’ seems to place the emphasis on my home – but I don’t feel that defines my business contribution. How do you feel about being part of a distributed team? Our choice of language will matter if we truly want a new normal for how we work.

Taking control of language

Discourse analysis techniques are invaluable to understanding the internal and external narrative of an organisation. Compare the language used in internal comms from two organisations and, without knowing anything about either of them, anyone with anthropology or semiotics training will be able to describe the underlying unconscious narrative that determines how the company and its staff see themselves and how they behave. Though this is an internal narrative, it will drive the external manifestation of the organisation or brand. Organisations have been transformed by changing their internal language.

So have people. Though far from being an elite athlete, I once took a one-week powder skiing course in the Swiss Alps. I largely mastered the skill of turning left in snow up to my armpits, but failed to translate that into right turns. My instructor told me he could hear me saying ‘no’ just before the turn and was clearly tiring of digging me out when I was buried above my head in snow after a failed right turn. So, he made me recite the two actions I had to make before a turn, without actually making the turn, and he made me say out loud a word that was the trigger for each action. The first word was ‘and’ and the second word was ‘ turn’, each linked to an action. 

Finally I was let loose again and, like all good fables, there was a happy ending. My instructor hadn’t used our time to practice the actions I needed to take, he just changed the language. Imagine if you took control of the language around your brand what you could achieve. 

It's never been more important to make information-based decisions. Because although the country is in lockdown, organisations still have to make choices that will guide their actions and determine the success of what they do.

So, in this series, we’re sharing what TRA knows about New Zealanders to help inform better decision making, so that our companies can better serve people. 

Read the other articles in this series:

Kiwis or New Zealanders?
When progress is on pause, how should organisations behave?
A nation of independently minded rule-benders
When visions of a new life add uncertainty
What do Kiwis want brands to get behind?
Sex Matters.
Focus on people, not the flag
Five insights on revenge shopping in New Zealand
The inbetweeners are taking it hard

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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