OPINION29 October 2014

When words aren't enough


It’s not what you say, but how you say it that counts, says Alex Culshaw. He argues that it’s vital for qualitative researchers of all levels to ‘be there’ as much as possible.


We spend our lives analysing information, gleaning insight and drawing conclusions from our interactions with others and The Special One learned this to his cost.

I refer, of course, to his comments about the refereeing of a Chelsea match last season. On paper, what did he say? He described the referee’s performance as “amazing” and “fantastic” and added, of referees in general, “[they] are doing really well according to the objectives – congratulations to Mike Riley [Referees co-ordinator]”. How could anyone take offence at his words?

Well, that’s the point! It wasn’t the words themselves that landed the Chelsea Manager in trouble. No, it was the context. Anyone who actually watched him make the comments knew without doubt that he was being sarcastic. He made that very plain and yet the way in which he did so was largely outside of the actual words he used. You had to be there. It was all about his body language, the context of his comments, what he didn’t say. As a result the Football Association fined him £10,000. They, like all of us, could see through the words and decipher a different meaning.

Perhaps they saw that his congratulations to the refereeing community were contained in a list of more genuine congratulations to his own team and the opposing team. Constructing his comments in this way, José is trying to legitimise the forthcoming verbal assault on referees. The types of words he uses are also instructive. Lavish adjectives such as “amazing” and “fantastic” or adverbs (“really well”) hint at the deeper truth.

And it’s not just José’s words that gave him away – there were a whole series of double messages from his non-verbal communication. Where is the happiness? Surely we should expect a few smiles in this congratulatory speech? And was that all he had to say before he walked off? He didn’t want to elaborate on such magnificent performances?

There are clear verbal and non-verbal lines of communication going on here that can help us decipher the true emotions. Importantly, none of these on their own confirm our interviewee’s sarcasm. Instead we still need to perceive and then interpret the accumulation of these clues before we can reach our judgement, just as the FA did. But what if we had only read the written words and not seen the video footage? Would we have drawn the same conclusion?

“How often do we ask moderators to reflect on whether a discussion guide worked?”

It’s vital to all of us as human beings, and especially to qualitative researchers, that we understand so much more than simply the words that are used. Just reading a verbatim transcript of an interview or focus group isn’t enough. And reading a verbatim transcript that someone else audio-typed for you certainly isn’t either. Like all human beings, we need to be there – as much as we can – so that all those nuances, gestures, inflections and contexts can enable us to take the real meaning from the words.

As an example, I can reflect on interviews I have conducted with young offenders discussing their lives and crimes. Reading a transcript of one of these interviews would provide the reader with knowledge about what crimes the offender committed, the rational drivers behind their behaviour and, possibly, clues around future behaviour or interventions strategies that may prove beneficial. What the reader will miss though is the matter-of-factness with which crimes are often described. The lack of empathy conveyed that suggests an entirely different mindset – one which could never be gauged from a transcript and has implications for types of intervention.

All of the above can be rooted in a theoretical context incorporating linguistics, non-verbal communications and semiotics. In more practical and useful terms though this discussion shows it is critical for researchers at all levels (from the new fieldwork executive to the experienced project director) to be there as best they can; be that attending groups, or watching a video stream of interviews. Only by being there can we fully comprehend what is going on. And if we can’t be there we should get the next best thing, for example a moderator debrief. How often do we ask moderators to reflect on whether a discussion guide worked? Do we ask them often enough to reflect on what they picked up on above and beyond the words they heard? I am not convinced we do.

So, a call to action: be there as best we can so we can fully appreciate what is being said and pass this understanding back to our clients. Thanks for the reminder, José.

Alex Culshaw is an associate director at McCallum Layton.

1 Comment

8 years ago

Alex hits the nail on the head. Body language, tone of voice - don't they always tell the truth? We've all heard that 'eyes are the window to the soul' - the eyes hold the truth. Nothing on earth more expressive than the human face? We all know that a person could remain silent but be saying it all through the body.

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