A look at how language builds community, can leave people behind and and ways to open up community language.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid. Every new classroom and school meant entering a different community. There were new ways of working. Different rules. Another set of norms and pre-existing relationships to sort out.
Finding a place in the community meant not just meeting people but learning their language: the unwritten ways of being. Of course, for many kids, this process means learning a spoken language. That’s another layer that adds complexity to the inner language.
Everyone has these experiences of joining a community, neighborhood school, workplace and trying to understand how it all works. But communities often don’t consider the complexity and power of their internal language. And people who aren’t able to pick up on the language will feel their exclusion. Some won’t engage. Others leave. The community is lesser for it.
Understanding the role and use of language will help any community or membership group thrive. Language is a currency of community.
Investing in language to grow community
Language grows community. Stories of community history, purpose and vision for the future are built of shared words, events and symbols. Community members speak to each other about actions, events, learning and the future. Language allows us to interact, learn, share, and build the tools and institutions that hold community together.
Language is a connective tissue and circulatory system. Like any system, language can put up barriers to entry. It can also decay if it doesn’t learn how to evolve and regrow over timer.
One challenge of community is defining not just language but its access points and capacity for change. A language that doesn’t change can’t thrive. Neither can its community.
Here are some ideas for opening community language to others in a way that grows and strengthens community.
Collective and transparent
Make your common terms, symbols, visuals and history accessible and easy to explore. Create opportunities to learn and ask questions about stories and the language used in them.
Stories and language should also be clear. A community that grows will be one that makes clear what it’s about and what it’s trying to do.
Space for difference
Growth is longer lasting when stories and people are networked together. A member who is connected to one other, or to just one story or campaign, is more likly to leave the community than a member who knows multiple people, participates regularly, and has their questions answered.
This means recognizing that not every member will agree with or engage in every aspect of community. Allow people to bring their questions and differences to the table. Look for events that allow conversation in many forms, not just broadcast messages.
Difference and change are (usually) good for community
A community can restrict difference and disagreement by controlling language. We see this in national or group censorship. Propaganda and misinformation are also used to control language and protect power.
But you can also create and shift stories by opening up language. Think of language and the opportunity to use and learn it as a source of abundance, not a threat.
Some ways to think about language that grows community:
- Express shared principles, values and processes for engaging in community.
- Help people build relationships and trust with multiple community members, not a single person or narrative.
- Show people they have a role in communications and storytelling. Ensure they see themselves represented.
- Help people participate in language formation. Community town halls, for example, can be forms of language formation. They give us reason to use and engage with community language. They expose members to language use by and with other members.
- Accessibility. Keep language jargon-free.
- Focus on language that fits the community, its norms, geography, vocation.
- Language needs to be seen, heard, read, and used. Use communications platforms and methods that your community uses.
- Teach. And do. Teaching (courses, webinars, how-tos, guides, etc.) offers the community ways experience language (and the community) to helps them meet their needs. “Doing” is similar. Do Something. Together. Include opportunities for the community to lead, engage and use language in service with others.
Content strategy for community
We hear about community strategy. And content strategy. But not much about the intersection of the two. Content strategy both creates and reflects community and the member experience.
In Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succed by Creating Belonging, Carrie Jones and Charles Vogl write about two forms of community content: media and shared experiences.
Media includes the platforms and communications products on which content is dispersed and, one hopes, both read/viewed and acted upon.
Shared experiences are the activities and events at which members engage with the community, organization and one another.
Content strategy guides the words, visuals, and stories that appear on media and in/around events. One can have a newsletter or a Facebook page or a weekly meetup. But you also need the stories, content and processes for interacting with and using that content.
Have a content strategy that is for community and meets its needs. Marketing language, e-commerce and fundraising pitches are not, usually, community language.
- Create content that defines norms, expectations, mission.
- Understand how and when content informs and teaches community.
- Provide stories and content that members can use to talk to other members and people outside the community.
- Use origin stories to provide shared history and case studies to show community working.
- Events and other gatherings have their own language that members use to understand the event, describe it to others and engage in the event. Make this language accessible, usable and able to be shared.
Folklore and memes
Want to dig deeper? I have some questions and suggestions. It would be interesting to talk about the role of folklore and fables in creating stories, language and ways of behaving. The Stith Thompson Folklore Motif indexes hundreds (thousands?) of common stories and narratives appearing in folk tales. These are the shared stories and language behind community beliefs and norms that weathered centuries of political change. At least in (mostly) Western folk history. Community language and content strategy could learn from a study of these motifs.
Another topic: Memes and viral visual language. What’s the impact of memes and virality on community language? How does visual language and mixed visual/audio/written language impact that growth, stability and sustainability of a community? Social media, including largely visual platforms like TikTok and Instagram, shape and drive language in particular ways that impact community.
Are communities with strong visual language, particularly visuals that travel fast on social media, looser or more cohesive? Do visuals spread knowledge and experience that communities use to bind and network? I don’t know. Visual language is part of community. Perhaps the speed of memes and quickly shared photos/video can grow community. But sustaining community is another layer of language development and use.