190 – Putting people in their place

Posted on November 11, 2012 by


Jovan has commented recently on the name tags people wear around their necks when they attend a meeting http://bit.ly/SDO5C2 . He looked at it from the practical point of view of “usability”. Jovan’s point is wholly valid. Tag design should aim foremost to being useful, e.g. to allow easy identification among participants – and for security people.

But is it the whole story – or the most important part of the story, for the matter?

Everything the human mind touches or creates involves multiple intentionalities. We bestow on the “brute object” one, or many meanings. We can’t help doing so. Some of these intentionalities cling to the object long after the creator has gone – think of buildings as palimpsests of architects, masons, owners. Some may be intended, others inadvertent, none are innocent. The human mind subliminally perceives many of them, and reacts, adjusts, and adapts.

Meeting-wise organizers will use the tags to convey their favored intentionalities, like authority. Others may be surprised that the meeting did not succeed as intended (Jovan found the meeting disappointing – the tag’s fault?). Mostly we’ll never know how it all panned out, for the intentionalities from the tag may interact with those embedded in the buildings, in the schedule, the weather, the food… whatever. Only by statistical analysis might we tease out some of these effects (if we have enough of a data base, that is). All such attempts are inherently arbitrary anyway – we may be missing major signifiers, or bestow significance on flukes.

Just for fun, let’s go through some aspects of the tag.

The tag establishes membership in a group, or “super-clan” of say 1’000 people – the rest of the world becomes hoi polloi. Inside it, role, rank as well as solidarity are affirmed. At the same time the tag may signify the wearer’s membership in one of the clans of which the “super-clan” consists – in Jovan’s case “Civil society” – and bestow separate (if possibly equal) role on the participant. The tag thus affirms implicitly divisions, rankings, prejudices. Stereotyping, as we know, subtly changes behavior[1].

The organizing institution(s) are identified by logo or script: the relative size of the emblem compared to the name may signify authority and order – the larger the logo, the stronger the message. Color of the tag, of the ribbon holding it up – I could ramble on for ever about their surreptitious significance.

Paranoia? Yes and no: it all depends on what’s the expected function of these “hidden persuaders”. Though they target the individual, what the manipulator is interested in is not so much individual compliance as nudging of the group in the right direction. While they may not be effective in changing this or that individual behavior, they may change that of the group significantly – that is “just enough” to affect the outcome in some way. Blowbacks abound at this stage, but as we learn to read them and measure their effects we may become more adept at tweaking signifiers. Retailers have been manipulating consumers in vain  in this way for over 50 years.

All social species – from bats to primates – rely on subliminal signifiers to manage living in a group[2]. Group-living has its advantages but also creates stress. Signifiers help manage stress. Speech – gossip for short – may be the crowing “stress-manager”. And twitter its virtual avatar – but that’s another story.


[1]          See: Claude M. STEELE (2010): Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. Norton, New York.

[2]          See: Robin DUNBAR (1996): Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Faber and faber, London.