Meta-messages: Why am I “on” the island but “in” the city?


Have you ever wondered why we say in the city, on the island, or at the ballgame?

Those tiny words convey a deep-seated (and often culturally varied) understanding of the nature of each location. In other words, the prepositions imply our concepts of the “containers” or our “mental shapes” of the spaces:

  • A city is like a labyrinth, we venture into it
  • An island is like a mound, we stand on top of it
  • A store is like a destination on a map, we arrive at it

Naturally, we use different prepositions at different times. For instance, I may message my friend to say, “I’m at the restaurant,” as I arrived for our lunch date; or, I might say “I’m in the restaurant” when she calls from the parking to ask where I am. These subtle variations reflect differences in our mental models of the location (or object, or phenomenon) as well as our relationship to it and its relationship to other people, objects, or phenomena. A lot of meaning is conveyed by these little terms.

Consider these other examples:

  • Running late, I text my friend to say “I’m going in the restaurant, now” (which suggests that I’ve arrived) or “I’m going to the restaurant, now” (which implies I may be awhile).
  • I tell my husband, “I’m going to work” as I leave the house (automatically framing the sentence from his perspective), but call my boss to say “I’m coming to the office” at the same time.

These underlying mental models extend to all manner of things. For instance, in the US we often hear phrases, such as “save time,” “spend time, or “time’s running out.” These highlight our shared conceptualization of time, namely as a scarce resource to be captured and consumed. As anthropologist Edward T. Hall famously documented, not all cultures view time in this way. (I’m not sure what the phrase, “stop wasting time,” would mean to a Polychronic [P-Time] person—probably not much!)

I sometimes teach about mental biases (System-1 thinking) in professional development workshops. In those talks, I often use this linguistic example to demonstrate how we receive and interpret implicit messages (i.e., how context frames our interpretation):

  • I have two glasses, one is half full and one is half empty. Which did I drink from? The implication is, of course, that I drank from the half empty glass, which was previously full and is now partially drained. Those little linguistic cues convey information about the glasses’ previous states—and often without the speaker nor the listener’s conscious acknowledgement.

Visual Meta-Messages

Like linguistic composition, visual composition often conveys subtle, subconscious meaning. The Gestalt principles of visual perception help demonstrate this. The similarity or proximity of objects to one another implies their conceptual grouping; for instance, in the graphic below, we’d generally consider the top, left square (“color similarity”) to contain five vertical lines (two red and three yellow) rather than a set of unrelated small squares or yellow-red-yellow alternating horizontal lines. We visually group the similarly colored squares and, as a result, make mental assumptions about their relationships—simply because of their visual qualities.


In Industrial Knowledge Design, you can use such subtle visual implications to aid your message. That is, you can design the implicit messages to convey your intended meaning. Although there is a formal construct in semiotics that implies the expression of meaning over and above the explicit information given, I like the less fussy term meta-messages.”

Every form of communication includes meta-messages, like the linguistic meta-messages mentioned earlier or the Gestalt perception meta-messages depicted in the graphic above. The best communicators use these implicit, connotative messages to reinforce their explicit messages. In daily conversations, most of us play with meta-messages effortless (e.g., “I’m busy with some reports” vs. “I’m slammed with these taskers”); however, because we incorporate them automatically and subconsciously, we often fail to include appropriate meta-messages in more formal (conscious) communications such as memos, reports, talks, or slide presentations.

Thanks! :–)

Kevin Roose wrote one of my favorite stories about meta-messages. In “How spelling mistakes and bad e-mail etiquette can help you get ahead,” he tells how Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel received an email from Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. At the time, Snapchat was just a small tech start-up, and billionaire Zuckerberg had emailed the 22-years old Spiegel to congratulate him on his burgeoning app. Most businessmen in Spiegel’s position would polish—and then re-polish—a polite and formal reply to the Facebook exec, but Spiegel merely wrote back: Thanks :) would be happy to meet – I’ll let you know when I make it up to the Bay Area.

That informal reply carried with it a host of meta-messages, e.g., we’re peers, we’re congenial, I’m busy… and so on. In his article, Kevin Roose calls it “strategic sloppiness,” which is true in this instance, but I think it’s too narrow a title, in general. I prefer call it just another example of the smart use of meta-messages.

2015-04-21 Thanks


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