Small Things, Big Things

Posted by: Miriam Alexander
  • June 4, 2014

propositioncloud w lips

Listening to HOW someone says something is every bit as important as WHAT they say.

Shonda Rhimes, the television genius behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal (and Off the Map which I loved but sadly no one else did), responded in an NPR interview about dark protagonists with the phrase “Over at Breaking Bad. . .”  So what, right?

On the face of it, the substance is perfectly logical – Walter White stands as the poster child for a dark protagonist, so why was I so stunned?  Rhimes didn’t say ‘on Breaking Bad,’ she said “over at” and gave us a really interesting and likely unintended window into her beliefs and perspectives.  Here’s what she implied with just 6 letters. . .

  1. Breaking Bad and Scandal are physical places to their creators.  Not ephemeral television shows traveling the airwaves, but actual physical plants with offices.
  2. These television shows exist for Rhimes in a way they don’t for those of us watching them. Given the colloquial ‘over at,’ it seems Rhimes feels fairly close with the other show. It’s almost as though there is a ‘television neighborhood’ – a neighborhood where Walter White and Olivia Pope are neighbors.  (I’m guessing the sitcom households are on the next block.)
  3. Equally, or perhaps most important, Rhimes is likely telling us she feels connected to her compatriots at Breaking Bad. Were this a live conversation with a respondent, that’s an area I’d probe for sure.

Rhimes’ syntax was unexpected, and revealed much more than a commentary of dark protagonists. She unintentionally spoke about the insular, communal nature of the television business.  If we had listened only for explicit meaning, we would have missed it.

Words matter.  A lot.  And qualitative research, with its focus on words, on open-ended language, can be so much richer if we focus on more than just the substance of what people say.  We do ourselves and our clients a disservice if we only pay attention to explicit content.

Here’s another, different kind of example: Have you ever known someone to start to say something and then shift gears?  We all do it.  But, the shift probably exposes a teensy bit of non-conscious censorship, my Ph.D. colleagues could probably explain exactly what happened.  All I know is that I’m frequently more interested in what my respondent chose not to say than what (s)he did. Following those paths will get you to a far more insightful place.

“so what?” you’re thinking, but not saying, “what do I do with what you’re telling me?”  Listen for two things: self censorship and unusual syntax, then probe around the edges to figure out what it all means.

It’s probably somewhat ironic that in an industry often focused on big ideas, I’m focusing on the smallest building blocks: the words and phrases that connect them. But sometimes, the smallest things lead to the biggest breakthroughs.

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