Anyone who has done the basics of psycholinguistics – or even your linguistics 101 – is familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I graduated with linguistics as my major – so I spent my fair share of years with all things related to linguistics, languages and psychology – but I don’t think I have ever tried to make the connection to what I do today as my profession. The language I use/study/teach nowadays is that of images – sometimes moving images, more often stills – and I don’t think I have ever made a connection to linguistic theories before in writing.
But some weeks ago I heard John La Macchia talking in a conference arranged by FIMAGE and I suddenly found myself amidst the basics of psycholinguistics as he was continuously making reference to “the creatives” and “the talent”.
It suddenly hit me: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in full action.
The hypothesis basically states that the language we use determines our way of thinking. Or the milder version: the language we use influences strongly our thinking and subsequent actions. Typical example (always mentioned) is the sociolinguistic one: the Eskimo has over 200 words for snow. Thus not only can they express the nuances of snow, but their whole relationship with snow is determined/shaped by the language they have at their disposal.
Some languages have different ways of dividing time i.e. the past/present/future axis is not the only one around. If I remember correctly , the original example in S&W’s paper came from the Indian language Hopi.
And this hypothesis is sometimes referred to as “linguistic relativism” as well.
Wait, what on earth am I babbling about?
What has this got to do with photography, journalism and our dying publishing industry?
Well, actually… it might be quite a lot. Let me try to explain.
To my knowledge there are no words in Finnish language for “creative” and “talent” – used as a noun referring to a person. Yes, we do have adjectives “he is truly creative and talented“, but you cannot say in Finnish that “somebody is a creative”. You have to paraphrase it into “a creative person”.
Similarly, you don’t talk of your “staff of talents” or “your creatives” – as John was doing all the time in his presentation.
You might say someone is talented – but the semantics is different: it refers to someone who is “really talented” or “naturally talented” – more like a qualitative superlative of a person. You cannot use it just simply as “a job description” – as it can be used in English. Yes, you can have in Finnish the expression ” a creative director” (translates as” luova johtaja”) but that is semantically totally different.
Which sort of led me to thinking: I’ve been looking now for several years intensively on the decisions our publishing industry is making and their horrible way of treating their people… which is totally absurd behavior in many cases. And what they have been doing and what they ARE doing reflects totally this void in our vocabulary and it totally falls in the realm of Sapir&Whorf.
And I find that very interesting.
Could one of the reasons to this disastrous performance in leadership and management we presently see in our media be a consequence of the fact that people running these institutions (our legacy media) lack the word and thus the concept of “a creative” and “a talent” – as a person? That the appointed leaders – nowadays mainly economists and lawyers, not journalists – see the people working merely as “workers” or “staff” in their “factory” or “production line” – totally missing the inherent differences between the “creatives/talent” and “staff”. In their interpersonal dynamics, for instance?
Even more bluntly we see this behavior in the “contracts” – and the quotes around “contract” should be in CAPITAL LETTERS and underlined – all the legacy players are pushing so actively now.
Everybody is supposed to work “factory style” i.e. follow the route: “we assign, you produce and what you produce belongs to us 100%”.
And please note that I am not making any value judgements here – as I would somehow be lifting the creative talent to a pedestal over others. No, I am not doing that.
But newsflash to the HR-department: creatives do not work that way. They do not conform to a factory production line.
Creatives think differently. They – by definition – create and innovate, come up with new stuff and ideas… They typically react very badly to pressure, especially to this “if you don’t do as we ask/demand, somebody else will do it and you’ll be on the street” -style of management the majority of our legacy is using now.
Creativity suffers tremendously – or should I say it suffocates to death – under e.g. fear. How do you expect somebody to make mind-blowing creative content when they do not know if their work is appreciated enough so they can count on having a job tomorrow (and that it is not given away to an intern from a college who can be used for free) – just if they dare to try something a bit more than ordinary?
Maybe there is something in this thinking which might explain the current death spiral of our publishing industry? And pay attention: I am not stating but asking.
It is an industry presently run by economists and lawyers and other “staff”. With an ever deepening shortage of true creatives – who in my humble opinion should be the epicenter of any media really worth spending time with.
Is it really so that simply because our language does not have the nouns “a creative” nor “a talent” these people are not appreciated?
By the way: do you know how “Talent Finland” is called in Finnish? Well, surprising maybe: it is “Talent Finland”. In Finnish that is.
Leaving the building
Have you noticed that there has been lots of people leaving the legacy media – voluntarily – as the legacy no longer sees the creatives as a necessary asset? Not to mention that when hiring e.g. a photographer for a gig they do not look for “a talent” but for “the best deal?” And let me underline – as I got my linguistic gear on: I am NOT talking about somebody being “talented” but of people who are “a talent” – there is a world of difference between these two concepts in English.
Which sort of brings me to my closing words.
I attended a conference last spring (organized again by FIMAGE) and one of the panelist – working for a major publisher who is pushing aggressively these “we want all except responsibility” -deals for their company – made her plea to the audience – in English – an audience consisting mainly of visual creatives, photographers, graphic artists, etc.
Her exact words were: ” We want to work with you, we need your talent.”
After a moment of silence – almost embarrassing – another panelist, a well known top AD who until recently worked for a major publisher himself simply stated the fact: “The talent has left the building”.
Kind of summarizes where we are at the moment?
PS. I might be wrong and I state for the N-th time in this blog that I write to challenge my own assumptions. But I thought that this was an interesting trail of thought… and maybe worth sharing?
PSS. I gotta start writing more often again. My spelling and punctuation simply sucks…