Reigniting Trust

The Power of Language

When it comes to fostering trust, who’s listening may be more important than who’s talking.

How do you get people to trust? Marketers, politicians and communications professionals of all stripes have struggled with the issue for decades, often leaning on some form of third-party validation. Marketers use testimonials. Politicians use endorsements.

Professors at the University of Florida are exploring the idea that language can be as important as the source—perhaps more so—when it comes to enhancing or depleting trust. And that language may have a different impact on everyone who hears it.

Colin Tucker Smith

“We may need to know something about the listener in order to persuade them, in order for them to listen and to not immediately shut down,” said Colin Tucker Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Psychology Department, who is conducting research supported by the Consortium. “I think that we are going be persuading people differently based on their moral values or their psychological profile. Basically, the key is speaking to people in their language, because if we give messages from on high, nobody trusts them.”

| Click here to read a Q&A with Colin Tucker Smith. |

Smith is working with Jason von Meding, an associate professor at the School of Construction Management who has studied the impact of the language used around natural disasters. In an unusual collaboration—a psychologist and an architect—Smith and von Meding are studying how language impacts trust under the banner of the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology.

‘Take the Listener Very Seriously’

Fostering trust, Smith says, is more than finding the right words. It is understanding how those words impact the audience. For example, people who lean conservative may be more receptive to messages that involve family and tradition. Those who lean more liberal are most likely to value themes of fairness and harm.

“I think that we need to take the listener very seriously,” Smith said. “We mostly focus on the message …  we do not think about the fact that what I find persuasive may backfire for somebody who does not use four-syllable words. They might think, ‘That is dumb. I do not get it. I am not listening.’ I am using this as a simple example, as though big words are the problem. They are not. It is more like, ‘you did not talk about my family at all in that persuasive message. You did not get that I care about tradition.’

 Often, Smith says, these judgments are immediate. He gives the example of using “all lives matter” in a statement about the widespread protests over racial injustice. For many, that messaging carries signals that run counter to the Black Lives Matter movement and will have an immediate impact on trust—positive or negative—depending on the reader’s viewpoint.

“There’s this hyper-vigilant approach to language,” he said. “I think all of that is conveying, ‘should I trust you?’ You can immediately gain and lose credibility in this culture now because people react to weaponized language. They identify quickly with one kind or the other.”

‘People React to Weaponized Language’

Smith said that impact might be most apparent when people are exposed to the exact same messaging or behavior and have distinctly different reactions.

“Some famous person does something and half of people say, ‘who cares, no big deal’ and the other half says, ‘that is horrible,’” Smith said. “That is part of what we are trying to get at. The exact same message might not actually mean anything in the mind of a more liberal person and it might be highly activating to somebody else. Some people are not even hearing it, whereas some people are saying, ‘they are talking to me.’”

Understanding how language impacts trust is especially important in a post-pandemic world, Smith said, as people are forced to choose what they trust from an array of competing information sources, and then make decisions based on that information that can impact their health and wellbeing.

The research that Smith and von Meding produce will also likely delve into political messaging, though Smith said he would like to get beyond simple red-versus-blue comparisons.

“I would like to live in a world where politics was not the explainer,” he said. “But right now, if I was trying to predict anybody’s behavior, I would just ask them their political orientation. I just cannot think of a better variable right now to predict people’s behavior.”