“We tell lies, but we leak truth”

Influence of others is something we all do on a daily basis, often subconsciously. But what language techniques do we apply to encourage others to do the things we want them to?

Professor Dawn Archer shed light on ‘Influencing Others: An Explanation of “How it’s Done” from a (Primarily) Linguistic Perspective’ at an inaugural lecture at Manchester Metropolitan University. She explained the pragmatics of language influence; pragmatics is a branch of linguistics based upon finding meaning from the contexts in which language is used. We make pragmatic choices every day without even realising it.

Photo credit: Ade Hunter

Photo credit: Ade Hunter

Professor Archer explained the trick is “planting an idea and making the other person think they thought of it” – Archer refers to these as “language triggered mind-viruses”. She used the fictional example of Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, who persuades, manipulates and deceives throughout the play. Professor Archer warned her audience to be careful of any friends who employed the “dark-side tactics” he uses, for example: mis-assigning meaning to actions, giving the impression of an unwillingness to speak ill about others, and answering questions with questions.

The negative use of influence can be detected if you know what to look for. In 2012, Mick Philpott made a public appeal on ITN, following an arson attack to his and his wife’s home that killed their six children. There was something, however, about the appeal that didn’t quite sit right, and when Dawn asked the audience who was moved by the public appeal no one raised their hand. Professor Archer highlighted the inconsistencies in Philpott’s performance that suggested it was an act of deception, for example, he was over-polite, used many credibility qualifiers, and his facial expressions did not always match what he was saying.

Philpott’s use of these tactics was an act of “impression management” – something we all do daily. Our language and body-language are “the very stuff out of which impressions are formed”.

Philpott was later found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison. He and his wife started the fire deliberately with the intention of getting a bigger house for their six children. As Professor Archer put it: “We tell lies but we leak truth”.

Influence does not have to be negative, deceitful or manipulative, however, it can be “altruistic”. Police negotiators must influence subjects in such a way to shift them into a more positive state of mind. This is particularly important with suicidal cases.

Professor Archer showed us a police negotiation gone wrong, where the negotiator overstepped the fine line between guilt and shame. According to Archer, studies have shown that feelings of guilt prompt action. However, in this case, the negotiator employed the wrong techniques, using derogatory language such as “coward” and “shut up”. This tragically led to the subject committing suicide.

The language of influence is inevitably important, and whilst for you and I it mostly means persuading your partner to do the washing up, for some it is life and death.

Professor Jonathan Culpeper from Lancaster University responded to the lecture, providing the audience with “takeaways” that Professor Archer had encouraged him to think about. He questioned the role of morality involved in having the power of influence, asking “white lies, they’re okay aren’t they?”.

With Dawn’s knowledge of all these tactics, she could be a “master manipulator” like Othello’s Iago. However, her “maxim in life” is to influence “for the good of others, as well as myself”, as her own parents, teachers and colleagues have done for her.

As Professor Archer put it “with great influence comes great responsibility”. She “plants seeds and allows them to blossom”. “Imagine how much better the world would be” if everyone used influence for the good of others.

This event preceded the Humanities in Public World strand of events. You can find more information about the full festival schedule here: http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hip/world/


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