Language experiments in the wild: what happens when you try and nudge away possessional speech?

tldr — we imploded faster than the Stanford Prison experiment

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”

— Jean-Paul Sartre

The communes are a site of what is known as prefigurative politics [1], that is, a set of living breathing social experiments that both critique the status quo and offer alternatives. For many of us social experimentation then, is not just for fun but is a way to deeply question ourselves, what made us and what we could be. The language we use is largely imposed upon us, and we rarely question or iterate on the terms that we use. With this in mind, last year the Embassy communities embarked on a series of language experiments.

“A “language” has come to mean something irreducibly, but often invisibly, political.” [2]

Theory posits reality is embedded in the language of a culture, such that language comes to control culture, and cultural norms. More than culture, some have suggested that the influence of language on thought is ‘obligatory or at least habitual’: thought is guided by language [3]. Thus, language is an obvious place to start creating the realities we wish to see, in ourselves.

There are a bunch of communities that digitally live on one Slack team, which includes the Embassy, Red Victorian, RGB, Buspatch, De Winton Manor, as well as Embassy communities in far off lands (Amsterdam, Berlin, Athens and so on). We are 411 users in total, and for us our Slack is our digital city. We have channels dedicated to each community or region, so you can wander over to Amsterdam and see what they are doing with their furniture upgrades, or check in with other San Francisco communities about their food plans. Each community has at least one private channel for sensitive matters but for the most part we lean towards using open channels. Digital technologies, in this case, Slack, provide an interesting way for us to explore the language we use, to gently nudge each other, either through use of emojis or the slack bot. After some discussion, the proposals on the table were:

Option #1: Possessional Speech Experiment

Inspired by the book ‘The Dispossessed’ [4], by the recently-passed-but-never-forgotten-anarchafeminist writer, Le Guin. In this world, the spoken language is Pravic which reflects principles of Esperanto and utopian anarchism, such that ’the use of the possessive case is strongly discouraged, a feature that also is reflected by the novel’s title. There is no property ownership of any kind. For example, at a certain point Shevek’s daughter, tells Shevek, “You can share the handkerchief I use”, rather than “You may borrow my handkerchief”, thus conveying the idea that the handkerchief is not owned, but is merely used by Shevek’s daughter. Thus for our experiment the useof words such as ‘my/your/our/ his / her’ might be accompanied with a nudge to use an alternative.

Option #2: Gender Speech Experiment

We use the slack bot to nudge us to use gender neutral terms, This might be using a person’s name, rather than he or she, or some other term. Evidence for why this might be interesting comes from this study: “Of the 111 countries investigated, our findings suggest that countries where gendered languages are spoken evidence less gender equality compared to countries with other grammatical gender systems. Furthermore, countries where natural gender languages are spoken demonstrate greater gender equality, which may be due to the ease of creating gender symmetric revisions to instances of sexist language.“

Option #3. No Conditional Tenses

In other words, we would try to be thoughtful or eliminate the use of would have /could have / should have etc as a way to remain committed to the choices we have made, not the choices we did not!

After a month of discussing and voting, we decided to kick off with Option 1, and we set up slack bot to nudge us on terms such as ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his/hers’.

If you typed “My room”, the slack bot would respond with one of the following:

Is this item really yours?
Instead of saying ‘my’, could you try an alternative? e.g. ‘the XX that i use’
Does this thing really belong to you?’

Here you can see the slack bot at work
the bot would nudge you to try and reword your sentence without possessional terms

24 hours in and it was wreaking utter havoc. We lasted fewer days than the Stanford Prison Experiment; four days before the general discontent got a little much and we had to disable the initially cheerful, but ultimately passive aggressive bot. Critical feedback was that the bot felt ‘authoritarian and spyish’, others felt that the bot was scolding them. All very interesting and useful reflections for updating our approach to experimentation.

Admittedly, the bot was a blunt tool — it would correct all uses of possessional terms, regardless of context; it’s hard to find intuitive alternatives to ‘my arm hurts’, for example. “The arm that I use, hurts”, sounds straight up like you might just be one sandwich short of a picnic. Someone reported trying to say “I’ll do my best!”, which whilst it’s easy to find an alternative, the use of my here seems less possessional that some other uses.

What did we learn?

Different communities have different language needs! For example, Buspatch is a community of vehicles where possessions are an integral part of how things run. In their experience, their situation uniquely called for use of possessional terms for their community to function.

Early feedback was promising

Despite the fact that we all had our current language imposed upon us, not everyone is equally motivated by the idea of nudging their language. Some people found even the concept hard to stomach. The slackbot’s nudges seemed to really get in the way of communicating for some people, and others just weren’t into the idea of questioning possessional terms in the first place. We are building a more nuanced bot, which will hopefully allow us to selectively participate and continue these explorations.

An experimenter’s dream — evidence that our intervention generalised to other domains. Despite the fact that our bot only existed on slack, communities who also used whatapp started to nudge each other. I certainly noticed that it very quickly changed my own language generation. In order to do anything to prevent the hideous bot’s response, I started actively planning my words before hitting enter. People were starting to change their spoken language also. This is pretty wonderful for a 4 day intervention.

The effect of the slack bot extended to language used in whatsapp channels, no nudging needed

I see no experiment as a failure in learning, and whilst this one only lasted a few days, I learnt a great deal. As Le Guin once said:

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
— The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969.

Six months on, I still hear the slack bot in my mind (eratum, the mind that I use) sheepishly muttering, ‘Did you have to say ‘my’ or could you have used an alternative? Is it really yours?’’. Here’s to the next experiment.

References & Notes
Dedicated to the late Ursula K Le Guin, who inspired so much in our community.

This was a Social Observatory experiment. If your community is interested in participating in some of these experiments, get in touch!

[1] Rethinking Prefigurative Politics: Introduction to the Special Thematic Section, Flora Cornish, Jan Haakenb, Liora Moskovitz, Sharon Jackson, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2016, Vol. 4(1)

[2] Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction, Dissent Magazine

[3] Language, Thought and Reality, Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956), Benjamin Lee Whorf, Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in [Cambridge]

[4] The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin

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