Going deep in a narrow space for great success. An interview with William Vanderbloemen…
Making complex ideas accessible and relatable
An interview with Dr. Suzanne Wertheim on how the language we use can make or break relationships and deals.
Part of thought leadership is making the invisible, visible.
When that happens, it can challenge beliefs and make people uncomfortable and defensive.
So, how can you break through feelings, and make change deeply significant to that future?
Our guest today is Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, the Founder and CEO of Worthwhile Research & Consulting, where she uses her expertise to improve hiring, organizational culture, engagement, and retention. She is also the author of The Inclusive Language Field Guide: 6 Simple Principles for Avoiding Painful Mistakes and Communicating Respectfully, which is filled with real-world examples and exercises that can help boost your inclusive language skills.
As a linguistic anthropologist, Dr. Wertheim has been researching and studying the intersection of language, power, and culture for decades. She shares how linguistics, like thought leadership, is about recognizing patterns. Accomplishing this can be a challenging task, as people realize they might not be as inclusive as they had believed.
Suzanne explains what inclusive language is and why it matters. We learn how language is social action and the building blocks of how we create, maintain, and end relationships. She shares the six principles found in her book that can be worked on to better our own use of inclusive language. In addition, she gives real life examples of how the wrong wording can cause a deal to go south, as well as how inclusive language can repair that damage.
If you want a better understanding of inclusive language as well as how you can move from being able to identify those problems to acting differently this is a must listen episode.
- Just because something is simple to describe does not mean it is easy or effortless to implement.
- Inclusive language is like learning any new language. It takes time and practice to become good at seeing it and changing behavior.
- A lack of inclusive language can force great employees to leave for greener pastures. This is one of the many reasons leaders need a better understanding of what is acceptable language.
If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.
Bill Sherman How do you frame an idea for the audience that you want to reach? It’s a really noisy world, and most thought leadership presents an alternative way to think and act. That’s why framing the idea matters so much. The language you choose to use directly affects whether your audience says, Oh, okay, that’s interesting. Tell me more. Or if your audience is here, that’s not for me and tunes out. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, CEO of Worthwhile Research and Consulting in her work as a linguistic anthropologist. She’s researched how people communicate. And as you’ll soon hear, language can either invite people into a space in conversation or cause them to question or even back away. I’ve asked her to share some of her research and examples in this episode so that we can communicate our ideas more effectively to our audience as we record this episode in the fall of 2023. Dr. Wertheim is launching her book, The Inclusive Language Field Guide. So we’ll talk about the challenge of making complex ideas accessible and relatable.
I’m Bill Sherman, and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Suzanne.
Susanne Wertheim Thank you for having me.
Bill Sherman So I want to begin with one of the challenges that’s going to follow leadership, which is making the invisible visible. And implicit with that is often the situation that what is known by someone. Is not widely known. I know you come from the world of academia and have done a fair amount of research of your career. What’s that gap look like from your perspective?
Susanne Wertheim I’ll tell you honestly that first of all, this is a fantastic question. I mean, the problem is as basic for me as literally the name of my subfield linguistic anthropology. I can’t even just say, Oh, I’m a linguistic anthropologist and have people go, Oh, sure. And understand what that means. Literally just saying what I do, people are like, I get, Well, how many languages do you speak? Or so that’s like you dig things up or you, you document rituals or. So I have to say that my field has done the worst job of PR in terms of being such a studying something that so basic to the human condition. If you talk to a renaissance person about their body or about astronomy, the things that they will say will be very different than if you talk to a today person. Not so from my field of linguistic anthropology and contextualized language use. If you talk to a renaissance person about how language works and you talk to it today, person, the same myths and the same false ideologies are out there. So that’s one issue that I have as I often just have to explain what I do, which is I will tell you that in particular, I look at the intersection of language, power and culture, and then in terms of not being widely known, it’s not just that it’s not widely known, it’s that people are defensive. When I say, please unlearn a thing that you thought was true, because the true thing that I’m going to tell you is going to be much more helpful. That’s actually throughout my book. And I just had somebody reach out to me who I’d given him an advance copy of my book for reasons I thought he could really use it. And he was asking me some questions just in a conversation we were having. And I said, Oh, all of this is literally answered in my book. Let me give you the book. And so he finally read it in his words. It’s like I finally finished it. And at the end of his lots of praise, he’s like, I love this. I love that I never knew this. This never occurred to me, This is so cool. And a mechanical engineer, right by training and by profession. And then he said, you know, there were times that I was very defensive from the things that you were saying in the book made me very defensive. And then I saw in the book you said, I expect you fully to feel very defensive that things in the book, because there are deeply held beliefs that you’ve had about how language works and how the world works. And I’m telling you, actually, that’s not true. And so a lot of people get very upset. And he said, But for me and here you can feel his good growth mindset. He said, But I don’t mind because it told me that I was on the right track in terms of learning and uptake of the material. So for him it was heartening to be angry, but I’m not going to be able to read book reviews because I’m making a lot of what’s invisible visible in my book. And for some people they’re going to be super excited and other people are going to feel uncomfortable and upset and angry and they won’t be able to put their finger on why. So in my world, there’s that extra element of, I don’t know, a little bit of danger and resistance.
Bill Sherman And I want to dig in on this, too, because in terms of making the invisible visible, many people will say, Hey, I learned how to speak and how to communicate at a young age. I’ve been doing this for ten, 20, 30, 50, 70 years. Don’t I know my own language? Right? And you’re coming with what I would say is a disruptive assumption in some ways and saying, no, there are patterns here that let me help you see and then let’s talk about them. Right.
Susanne Wertheim I mean, that’s literally exactly it. And I was on a a podcast with a friend of mine from grad school a couple of weeks ago. She left grad school, all that dissertation for a bunch of reasons, but one was to found her own company. So she spent a lot of time also explaining to business people, why is my stuff useful? And then she’s devoting a lot of time in a very volunteer capacity to help people transitioning out of linguistics, grad school into the world. And so one thing she tells people when she’s mentoring and one thing I tell people is that linguistics is all about pattern recognition. So it’s years and years of training to dig under the surface and locate patterns that are really masked or hidden or buried or faint, and you’re following the faintest trails and you pull and you pull and you sit and you think. And then suddenly a pattern emerges and then you test it in the end, hand it off to other people and you test it. Well, I take that that is 100% transferable to all kinds of work applied work out in the world. And so for me, I got sassed. I might have told you the story. I think there’s a training that’s now a very foundational workshop that I give all the time. And the very first time I gave the earliest iteration of this workshop was to an executive team of a very, very well-known tech company. And I was terrified. I’m like, Oh my God, can I run this on low stakes people first, you know? And I, I ran it on friends in my house for a couple of hours and we sorted it out. But I got asked by one of the founders of that company. In part, he had come from a training that had made him feel bad because it wasn’t a well done training about bias, but in part he was very skeptical. And so I stopped around 5 minutes and I’m like, oh, like a I speak snark at home. Like sassy, like sassy sarcasm is my home language. And if I wasn’t up here trying to help you see things, I would be sitting the way you are and snarking it out. I’m like, Go for it. But I said, I stand by anything I’m going to tell you today. I offer to you that you look at the patterns yourself and if you collect data you will see the same patterns that I’m telling you you’re going to see. And if we had time, I would have you gather your own data and find the patterns yourself. And then I would come and say, yes, there’s a long history of seeing those patterns. So when I had people for 12 weeks at a time or 15 weeks at a time, one way I could bypass scattered skepticism or resistance is instead of coming in and saying, I’m all knowing and I’m your professor, and here’s stuff that I know that you don’t know, I would say, Here, do this homework. And then we would sort things out and like see anything happening along gender lines. And they’d be like, Oh, there’s so many negative words for sexually active women, but there’s like only one negative word for sexually active men. I’m like, All right, let’s keep going, you know? And so that really would land with people. I can’t give homework to CEOs of tech companies. So the best I can do is say, I promise you that this is data driven, evidence based scientific analysis patterns. And I promise you that any other person with the with the toolkit could find what I found. So, yeah.
Bill Sherman Well, and I want to circle back to you, talk about being a linguistic anthropologist. And so from an anthropological perspective, observing, listening, noticing patterns and the key on linguistics, how do people speed and speak and communicate, right? And you’ve collected both as an academic and then as a consultant, a practitioner, a body of data of what do people say and how do they say it in different contexts. And I want you to, before we go too far in this conversation, ask the question. You’ve written a book which is coming out as we publish this podcast titled The Inclusive Language Field Guide. Would you please define what inclusive language is and maybe why it matters from your point of view?
Susanne Wertheim Sure. So I’ll say that I was talking to someone the other day who has there’s a bunch of inclusive language coming out. And so she wanted to show me stuff and she’s like, Can we use 50 dimensions of human identity? And I’m like, Yes, like, mazel tov. Like, this is not this is not, you know, but instead I try to have a poker face. And I was just like, Oh, that’s great. And she says, Wait, so how long have you been working on inclusive language? And I’m like, I don’t know, 25 years, 26 years. I said, You know, we didn’t call it inclusive language. I’m like, I’m just mirroring the terminology that people used to hire me and find me, you know, like they care about a thing that’s called inclusive language. I have lots and lots of terminology for things, right? But so to my mind, what I’m very interested in is, first of all, language is social action. So a lot of people I mean, growing up, I’ve heard people say, oh, sticks and stones, etc., or people will say, Oh, it’s just semantics. And I’m like, Oh my God, semantics literally means meaning. You’re like, Oh, it’s just the meaning of the thing. I’m like, Oh.
Bill Sherman What is what it is? Right?
Susanne Wertheim Exactly right. But there’s this idea and sometimes people really do get very nitpicky about very small details of one particular thing. And even I’ll be like, Oh, come on. Like, let’s move on from this. But language is social action, and language is how we create, build, maintain and end relationships with other people and with other entities. Right. Language is the medium of our social interactions. When people who are hearing impaired and deprived of language, they’re also deprived of human interaction, culture, cognitive development. It’s genuinely torture. So language is how we tell people who we are. You can listen if you are hearing and a speaker of aural languages, you can hear somebody 5 seconds of somebody and say to somebody else, Oh, I think that’s a man. I think he’s white, I think he’s middle aged. I think he grew up in the South. I think he’s working as an auctioneer, you know, like 5 seconds. You were telling people so much about ourselves. Language is a can be actually in action if you say I promise or I swear or I do in a wedding ceremony, you just did a thing. It’s how we express emotions and it in particular for inclusive language. I’m very focused on relationship building for all kinds of relationships between a company and a client, between a talent acquisition person and a job candidate, between an executive giving a talk and everybody hearing that talk in addition to friendships, etc.. So especially in the early stages of a relationship between two entities or two people, people are very much on alert and reading and unpacking. So much of the social meaning that’s getting packed into people’s language, whether it’s in writing or whether it’s oral or whether it’s signed with hands and face and body. People are really reading stuff. And if you say a problematic thing, it can take that relationship and run it right off the rails and maybe even end it. So that’s why in my book on inclusive language, I’m defining inclusive language not as a list of do’s and don’ts in terms of words, Don’t say this word, do say this word, which is what a lot of people ask me for, especially because I work in tech. A lot a lot of engineers are like, Just tell me the words I can’t say. And I’m like, I’m like, It’s very contextual. What if I give you a toolkit and then you can evaluate? They’re like, I don’t want it, just tell me. But I instead have these six principles because for me, inclusive language, what I’ve boiled down is over decades of research in multiple languages, on multiple continents, and with so much data that my colleagues have brought to conferences and journals that I’ve read and books that I’ve read, I’ve distilled these six principles about what inclusive languages and I’ll just say them because they’re very I think it’s that thing where you circle around where things get very, very complicated and then in the end they get very, very simple.
Bill Sherman Well, and before you list the six, I want to call out something for the listeners here. There could be a list of these six which would be incredibly laden with academic language and very overwritten. I want you to share those six, but share them in that conversational, approachable language which is in the book.
Susanne Wertheim Sure. I mean, and I’ve worked very hard to refine it. This is decades of me, even as a as a teaching assistant, I would see resistant body language and figure out how to bypass it. Why? When were people either disagreeing with something that I said or having a hard time understanding it? So I’ve been working for a long time. Do you How do you take something? Very sophisticated that has a lot behind it. But explain it in a way that really sticks with people. So I’ll say it. Do you want to be a person who uses inclusive language rather than problematic language? Problematic language causes all kinds of relationship harm. Right. It lowers trust. It drives people away from you. It can end relationships of all kind, including between a sales team and prospect, which maybe we’ll talk about later if you want to. Would use inclusive language. All you have to do is reflect reality, show respect, draw people in, incorporate other perspectives, prevent erasure and recognize pain points. So in some respects it is as simple as that. But as well as we all know, just because something is simple to describe does not mean that it is easy and effortless to implement. So it actually really does take a lot of small shifts and for some people, some big ones to actually follow those six principles.
Bill Sherman So give us an example. You’ve alluded to a sales conversation. What does it look like when things go wrong?
Susanne Wertheim Let me give you an example of a thing that went wrong and then went right that was just told to me by somebody. He commented on a LinkedIn post that I made about sales reps saying wrong things and losing so much revenue. And he commented and I said, Can I talk to you for a half an hour? And I could have talked to him for 2 hours because you can tell he’s very good at sales because he’s a very good storyteller. And so here’s some of them were like, Oh, I’m like, that’s very unsubtle. I’m like, give more subtle examples. So here’s this. They’re going to sell to New England consortium of such and such, where in the room decision makers are going to include both a lot of women and a lot of transgender people. Right. And so it’s a start up. And one of his executives comes along. And to help with the techie Stauffer wants to be part of the process. Doesn’t really need to be. And during the first half of their sales call, says guys to address the people in the room again and again. Guys. Hey, guys. All right, guys. Okay, guys, let’s move forward during the break. And meanwhile, while this one’s talking, the sales rep who I’m talking to you, I’m going to call him Mark. So Mark says to his colleague during the break, he’s he’s watching the room and he’s like, oh, this is not landing. Well, he can see it almost landing like a like people are most pushed back by guys like he can see body language that’s such like almost like they’re being pushed like pushed away literally physically folded arms but like even a little jerk back. So during the break, he pulls him aside. He said, Do me a favor. When we get back, I want you to come into the room and say, Hey, everyone, It’s been brought to my attention that I’ve been saying guys a lot to address you. And I understand that’s insensitive and that’s not my intention. Please forgive me. So then, Mark, the sales rep has 5 minutes or more trying to convince this executive. But why? The guys means everyone. But this is ridiculous. I’m not going to do this. And he says to his executive, If you don’t do this, the deal is done. I see the deal is already tanking. Like we are going to lose this deal. And it’s a big it’s a lot of revenue. So they go back in and this guy is not wanting to do it, but he like takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders and he says, All right, everyone, it’s been brought to my attention that I’ve been saying guys a lot and it’s insensitive and I don’t want to offend you and please forgive me. And would you like me? Can you let me know what I can use in the place? Like, would you like me to say people? Would you like me to say folks? And here’s Mark, my sales rep telling me years later about the story. And he says that immediately the tone of the room changes. People look at each other, bodies relax, arms get unfolded, people smile, and some people say, okay, I forgive you. And some people say people as good folks is good. Everyone is good. Thank you very much for this. And then he rebuilds trust and they go on and guess what? They win that they win that thing and they 100%. We’re not going to win it from one word, which is guys invisible to that executive that it was problematic, visible to our sales rep. Why? Because his wife does guy work, I think. And he’s also a clearly a very observant person. So I love that story because it’s got a happy ending because the guy who told it to me is the hero. And I said, Do they even recognize how lucky they are that you were there to educate because otherwise they leave the room if he wasn’t there. And it’s two sales reps who both think two people from the company who both think guys is okay, then the deal tanks and then they’re ghosted. They’re never, ever, ever going to know. It was one word that that ruined everything.
Bill Sherman Well, and we’ve had conversations as well about people leaving organizations. And what said in an exit interview may not be the real motivator for leaving as well. And so if you do not create a space for a conversation to happen, it’s not going to happen and you’re not going to hear. And it’s easy to overlook.
Susanne Wertheim And people. I think it’s so interesting because so many companies are so visible and invisible. I think a lot about selective attention, which people at I used to teach with at UCLA were into in a very deeply theoretical way. Right. So I used to hear a lot of talks about and talk about selective attention. But I think it’s so interesting in terms of companies, what they pay attention to and think is worthy of their attention, time and resources and what is not worthy. And so especially now that there are a lot of places that are saying, please report your diversity numbers, There’s a lot of attention to numbers and recruiting, right. Will put money into recruiting, will pay attention to numbers. And I can’t tell you what percentage of people who bring me in and my colleagues in who do not track at all their tenure length and their departure rates for the people that they’re spending so much money to bring in. They really underfund what happens to those people and their experience when they’re actually at the company. And so, first of all, a lot of people will decide. A lot of people will decide within the first 30 days whether or not they’re going to commit to a company. So here’s that problematic language. Again, enough people say problematic things to somebody from an underrepresented group where people at the top are like, We need these numbers. But then nobody goes around and says, hey, you know, now that we’ve got a more diverse workforce, here’s some rules of engagement. Like, let’s stop saying these things. Here are things to avoid, Here’s how to be respectful, here’s how to be cognizant that people come from other perspectives. They’re not putting in that effort and they are literally not even tracking. So there have been times I’ve been brought in to do post exit interview interviews. I can’t find a shorter, clearer way to say that. But so there’s the exit interview which was said nothing and there’s no trust or they don’t want to burn a bridge or they’re like, Why am I going to bother if they’re so disengaged that they are gone? I feel like, why am I going to talk about painful stuff to educate you? And you didn’t care enough to help me when I was here. So I’ve got lots and lots and lots of record transcripts of interviews where people laid out the things and P.S. inclusive language also is sometimes about literally including someone in a conversation. I can’t tell you how much of the time for underrepresented people, especially women. The complaint is nobody. They I they didn’t invite me to the meetings I was supposed to be in. I they didn’t they didn’t ask me to be there. When I was in a meeting. They didn’t hear the thing I said. It’s like a joke at this point. I was giving a workshop earlier today and there was an example that I had them dig into and ten minute break out discussion about a female engineer who’s talked over people, appropriate her ideas, all these things. And then I said to them, I have never for a global tech company, I said, I’ve never come into a tech company to assess in some way what’s going on with the culture and not found this happening. I’m like, zero times have I come into a company and not found this example. So they’re like, Are your examples real? I’m like, not only are they real, I literally could just anticipate that like this, but like, I’ve never not found this. So it’s like a joke. People are like, Oh, women are interrupted in meetings, they give an idea, and then a male colleague says the same thing and they, you know, people like, make a joke about it. They’re like, oh, you know, it’s such a stereotype. I’m like, But nobody’s fixing it. Like, you’re not you’re not fixing it. So that’s the thing about the selective attention. The people, even if they even if something has become visible somehow, it’s not visible enough for people to get prodded into taking reparative action.
Bill Sherman If you’re enjoying this episode of leveraging thought leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave a five star review at rate this podcast dot com forward slash l t l and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple Podcasts and on all major listing apps as well as thought leadership leverage dot com forward slash podcasts. So let’s stay on that for a second. And I want to ask the question because I think it generalizes to thought leadership is in general, but specifically to the language of inclusive language that you’ve been talking about. If someone sees it, but they haven’t internalized the issue and haven’t made that step to action. So we’re in the knowing doing gap within the audience that you’re trying to reach. The process of changing minds and changing action is difficult. How do you cross that threshold?
Susanne Wertheim It’s hard. I mean, I’ll tell you some tactics. I mean, the book was written very much thinking about different audiences in terms of knowing doing Gap. I’ll tell you that one I had I had a young editor who asked to be on the book, but then was offended when I said that it might be of some use to her. Very, very offended. Very offended. And I said to her at a later date, it’s not that I think that you don’t know how to use inclusive language. It’s not that I don’t think you’re a fluent speaker, but a lot of people, for example, who are native speakers of a language make terrible teachers, right? If you can’t articulate the principles of a thing, you just know it. I was like, so, I mean, it’s helpful because here I’m giving you a way to onboard people who might be resistant. These six principles are a way to formulate the way that, you know, things in a in a way that works for people. So have so many different on ramps for so many different kinds of people in the book. I will say the knowing doing gap is. The brain is amazing for pattern recognition. And language is one of the clearest ways that this is the case. So we’re actually if we’re hearing and our mothers are speakers of all languages, we’re actually getting data to our brains in utero. We actually emerged from the womb with some knowledge about the international patterns of our mother’s languages. Right? We’re not coming out a blank slate.
Bill Sherman And we don’t come with grammar and syntax, but we’re not tabula rasa.
Susanne Wertheim Well, I will say, or absolutely not tabula rasa, but I would say grammar, intonation, international patterns are grammar. So they’re folded like I mean, I’m speaking very literal in terms of analogies. They’re like, if you, if you describe certain areas of linguistics is not grammar, they’re going to be very sad. So it’s not syntax, but it’s definitely a thing. Actually, for some people it is syntax. All right. Anyway, and tonal languages. But leaving that aside. So one thing is that if you ask people to here’s the home, here’s the thing again, find their own data and then practice themselves. Eventually the knowing becomes real knowing, and then it turns into real. Doing so for the book. I always planned it. When I first started out. The idea was it would be 12 months of things to practice, and my acquiring editor said, Nobody wants a 12 month book. Like, No, absolutely not. Like, we’re cutting this book down. And I said, Oh, right, right. So I have my book is secretly a six month course. And the idea is that you can read it, but then you go back and for every principle, I give you five quick wins to practice right away, and then I give you activities to practice because people know that if you’re going to learn a foreign language after puberty. So puberty is when our neurology changes and we can’t really be a native speaker anymore. There’s a lot of complications around that. But basically, when you talk about acquiring a second language, that’s different from being natively bilingual or multilingual people. So anyway, if you’re acquiring something after puberty, it’s harder than before puberty. And so you have to practice a lot if you are going to if you don’t speak French and you want to learn French, you don’t think, Oh, I’m going to read a book for a few hours and now, great, I got it. You know, so the nice thing for me about language, so the bad thing is people can get so angry and resistant and sad. But the nice thing is everybody knows you have to practice language if you want to improve your language skills. So for me, that knowing, doing gap is these exercises and the more people are doing the reading I’m asking them to do and crafting the sentences I’m asking them to craft. The sharper their eyes will be and the more it will be visible when I’m not asking them to look at it. Right. So the idea is if they spend a month practicing a thing, then when they see it out in the wild, oh, this headline, they’re really using that linguistic distortion of softening language to make it seem like what that person did isn’t that bad. But I can translate that. And when you translate that out of softening language, that’s a pretty bad thing that was done. So like that kind of clarity.
Bill Sherman I want to turn to a different topic briefly, and I want to ask about your journey because you come from academia. But as anyone who’s gone through the academic process, you have to have a fair amount of passion for a topic to pursue it. So my question for you is how did you get drawn into the world of understanding language and exclusive language? What is your story that fuels your passion?
Susanne Wertheim So we’ve talked about this before briefly, but you and I have both independently come to the same conclusion, which is a lot of people who have intelligences that are just called intelligence, but are specifically sort of school related intelligence. Right. We know there are many kinds of intelligence. But this is a school related intelligence. So a lot of people who have a school related intelligence and have some kind of deficit or problem in their lives, intellectualize that issue and then specialize in it. So I’ve seen it in my own life. I was, I think, in my thirties when suddenly I looked at I’m like, oh, it’s that random? What the people I know specialize in. Like it’s really based on their background. And then I turned the eyeball on myself and I’m like, Oh, that’s why I’m doing this so briefly. I was a pathologically shy child who skipped kindergarten and was dropped into a first grade where almost everybody knew each other. And I could sense and I was so short, I was short for anybody, but I was so short. And I was like, there were so many ways that I was kind of marked as the other. So there I was on the sidelines like, How do I survive in this social environment? I’m like, I think there are these rules and I don’t get them. And so I started studying these rules of human interactions and social meaning. I’m like, What am I not understanding when they see this? It feels like it means something else. Like I’m a little terrified five year old, right? I trace it right back to their cut to I graduate from college and I’ve decided to not get an English degree retrospectively. I understand that. Well, I still love literature. I’m very much more data oriented. And so for me, a data a data gathering data analysis space was the right place. But I graduate from college with a lit degree. I’ve decided kind of last minute to not go to grad school. And so I’m like, Oh, what do I do? I’ve got these loans from a private school. Nothing like today’s loans, but not good. So I moved to Boston and I become a person who works in financial technology, first in sales, in marketing as an assistant, and then as a technical writer. And I was not treated with respect. I’ll just. There are many ways. And what’s so funny is I left tech for like 12 years because then I was consulting again while professors. But I’m like, it got worse. It got, it got worse. Like while I was away, it didn’t get. It got worse. But there were so many ways that I’m short. I’m very familiar being I’m ambiguously ethnic, I’m technically white, but a lot of people think I’m a different kind of brown, depending on who they are. And so like the it was all rape for a lot of men who coded to be very condescending to me. And so I thought, I need to do something. And the more I learned about computer languages, the more interested I was in human languages. And so I ended up applying to linguistics grad school, and ended up coming here to Berkeley, which is just up the road from where I’m sitting now. I came back because I like the Bay Area a lot and I did not start out looking at the stuff that I look at now. I was very grammar oriented and I was very interested in historical linguistics, how languages change over time, and in particular what we called contact induced change. Why would one language influence the other but not vice versa? So I went to Russia. I learned two languages before I went. I learned two languages. I got basically like parachuted into early Putin, Russia. I was interviewing people and having them make recordings in my kitchen and trying to figure so much stuff out about like, why is the language Tatar This minority language that’s been very stigmatized, why is its grammar changing so much as it’s increasingly pushed out of the what we call functional domains where it had been ascendant for so many centuries? Why is the touch of grammar changing so much? And Russian is basically almost completely unchanged. And the answer was in social context. It was about what’s inside somebody’s head, how they think about themselves, how they perform their identity to other people who they’re talking to, where they’re talking to them, what the purpose of the conversation is, what’s going on at the level of the republic, what’s going on at the level of the nation. It was all happening at once. It was like a trap door context. And every time I thought I found it, I kept on dropping down to another level. Oh, now I have to look at this. Now I have to look at that. And so that’s how I back.
Bill Sherman Which is always dangerous when you’re doing your dissertation or after chapter or all the way down.
Susanne Wertheim Well, actually, the trap doors, thank God I didn’t know enough. Thank God I had to teach myself linguistic anthropology because they all had left the anthropology department at Berkeley. And by the time someone came, it was too late. My dissertation was already done. So, like, I sat in his class, but the stuff that he did was very, very different, that the stuff that was answering my questions. So I didn’t really, really find the trapdoors until I was teaching. And then I would kind of literally an entire grad seminar. I’m like, Let’s do context and we’re going to, you know, And so there so we would do and I would be like, all right, drop down a level. Now we’re going to do this. And so for me, it was both intellectually fascinating that all of these grammatical questions were based in how people thought about themselves and the social meaning of how they mixed languages and talked to people. And then so we’re talking about inclusive language. This was people who were very oppressed. This is pre 911. I was under secret police surveillance. A lot of people I was talking to were under secret police surveillance. They were ostentatiously taking photos if you went to the mosque. I mean, so people sometimes if they wanted to tell me things, we would take a walk and they would tell me on a bridge. I’m like, Am I in a spy movie? I’m literally a grad student in linguistics, in linguistics. And I’m being told things in the middle of a bridge, you know, because then nobody would be able to hear there were no devices. So it really was very strange. And so it was intellectually engaging, but it was that’s also about inclusive language. You know, it’s like prevent erasure. There was a lot of work to erase the Tatar language, incorporate other perspectives. There was a lot of work done by the Russians to move people to the Russian perspective. And by Russian I mean something called Urumqi, which means ethnically Russian and not a racist, which means the state, the nation of Russia. So Russian and English is ambiguous, but I mean the state I’m sorry, the ethnicity. So there are ways, again, that people like. The stuff that I looked at from my dissertation is completely transferable to stuff now. And I’m laughing because I mean, I’m not laughing. I’m laughing inside because my publicist, I’ve got some publicists for my book and one of them emailed me yesterday and said, There’s this thing going on. There’s a reporter, Can we pitch you to the reporter either for commentary about this thing about kids who do or don’t speak Spanish and words for that and this and that. And like, I’m like, what? You don’t know. But what I know is that my roots of inclusive language are in multilingualism and in language endangerment and in what happens when children don’t speak the same way as their parents and stigmatized language varieties and blah, blah, blah. I’m like, So yeah, you can have me. I’m like, Sure, there’s force. And Susan in my book that relate to what this report is interested in. But I have literally decades of research, so it all becomes very intermingled. But this is why, again, I’m saying I say inclusive language because people say inclusive language. And so that’s what’s going to sell the book. People are like, Oh, I need to know about inclusive language, and they’re going to type inclusive language. But I’m the only person I know talking about it very strictly from a. Linguistic behavior perspective. Everybody else comes from identity, and I’m the only one who has enough data and ways of talking about language behavior that I’m talking about. It’s strictly from a behavioral perspective. And so for me, the book is a pill packet for teaching really important linguistic anthropology concepts that people can see the world much more clearly if they read my book and get these concepts. Yeah, it’s a stealth education device, my book.
Bill Sherman So as we begin to wrap up, I want to ask you one last question, and this one allows I’ll give you a little bit of time to think on. I want you to go back and imagine your younger self, whether that’s you in grad school, whether that’s you back in first grade. Wherever you want to position yourself. What advice would you give yourself your younger self when it comes to the practice of thought leadership?
Susanne Wertheim It’s a two parter. So I used to think about this question because I mentor so many young academic women to come to me both when I was professor and then afterwards to be like, Oh, what? You know, help. So the thing I used to say kind of jokingly is don’t dumb yourself down so boys will like you, right? It was the first thing. But as a female CEO who has to convince a lot of men who hold purse strings that I have value, and even though I’m going to say uncomfortable things, they should hire me. The second part is pay more attention to what convinces people that you are a thought leader that they should be listening to in ways that go down easy, right? Sometimes there’s a hard way to come at things, and sometimes there’s an easy way. I just said pickpocket before, right? So I have a cat who desperately needs medicine, and we tried shoving it down his throat. Literally, we tried putting in a syringe, probably hated it. And then I found a pill pocket he likes, and now he runs to his medicine. And so my advice to the younger self is, what’s the pill pocket that gets people to find your stuff appealing and tasty? So they run towards it and they’re like, Ooh, this tastes good. But the medicine is still in there and is taking effect. So that’s a lot of it’s a lot of observational work to do.
Bill Sherman Absolutely. And I would say just like trying to find the right pill pocket for Kat. Finding the right pocket for your ideas takes some work and experimentation. And there are times where someone or your cat will spit that pill pocket out and go. Not for me. And that’s part of the journey.
Susanne Wertheim It is. You just need enough people saying, Oh, I like that pickpocket to keep you in business. Right. So.
Bill Sherman So, Suzanne, I want to thank you for taking time to sit down with us to talk about your work and your work in thought leadership over the course of your career.
Susanne Wertheim It is always a pleasure to talk with you. And it was a pleasure to talk with you on mic today. I really appreciate being a guest. Thank you so much.
Bill Sherman Our pleasure.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in Organizational Thought Leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website, OrgTL.com and choose ‘join our newsletter’. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.