Katherine Kinzler

How to Speak Justly and Bridge Divides

Air Date: August 17, 2020

University of Chicago psychologist Katherine Kinzler discusses her new book “How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do – And What it Says About You."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m honored to welcome a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Katherine Kinzler she’s author of the book you see in her backdrop, “How You Say It.” Welcome, Katherine.


KINZLER: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor to be here.


HEFFNER: We’re delighted to, and this is such an important topic today, amid the race-based violence, the movement for financial and cultural reparations and a discourse that honors the dignity of everyone especially those who’ve been dispossessed. What would you say, two questions to start? It’s sort of a two-parter. What is the most common prejudice in discourse that you hope your book will bring attention to, and what is the most pernicious?


KINZLER: I like that question. I think the most common is that in some ways it’s, it’s kind of a blanket statement, which is to say that we’re really unaware of how we’re prejudiced against speech. So in that sense, it’s really common and it’s something that we all do and yet few of us are somewhat aware of it. So I could pull out particular examples, right? Like I could talk about different dialects of American English, but I think the broader point is that all dialects of American English are, you know, forms of language where no one way of speaking is inherently better or worse, better or worse at conveying all the content that humans have to express. And so, you know, language conveys meaning and language is social and yet people don’t realize how prejudice they can be against some kinds of speaking over others. And then for your second part about kind of this pernicious form of bias, I think it gets particularly pernicious when you start to combine it with racism, with thinking about employment. So to give examples, you know, people often will say something or they might think something like, oh, you know, I don’t like that way of speaking, but I’m not being racist. It’s just, you know, something, I didn’t understand it as well, or it didn’t sound as good to me, something like that. You kind of blame your comprehension and don’t realize both that, you know, social biases feed into what you comprehend and don’t, and then also, you know, you can even just comprehending or not can sort of result from the listener shutting down.

HEFFNER: That’s, that’s helpful. From the listener’s perspective, you want the prerequisite, Katherine to be empathy and listening with an empathetic ear, but also to be intellectually honest in, you know, some of that is the foundation of your dialogue or discourse and that is making sometimes too arbitrarily a snap assessment of someone’s education, someone’s literacy, someone’s intellectual bandwidth. So can you take us through that process of people respondents, if you will, so if I’m speaking now you’re responding to me and in some ways that’s unavoidable because it’s a natural stimulus? So what are you espousing, if anything folks should do during that process of absorption?


KINZLER: Yeah. So I think people have some misperceptions about how this dialogue kind of goes, so one misperception is this idea. Like I said my thing, it’s out there in the world, I did a good job now, you know, you hear it. And that was it. Like, that’s how communication works. But I think what you’re getting at is this idea that communication, isn’t just putting this thing out into the world, but rather it’s often reciprocal and it’s often, you know, when somebody kind of, when somebody is doing a good job, listening, the person who’s talking does a better job talking. And so by being, you know, a listener who’s actively trying to listen, who’s asking follow up questions when they don’t understand something, right, who’s really trying to engage and take the other person’s perspective back in, bring out a better communication from the person who’s doing the talking. And then the other misperception, I would just note that people might be aware of in themselves is just to think that actually sometimes people underestimate their ability to understand someone. So often people will say something like, oh, that person, you know, they had a really heavy accent. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but actually both, if you look at more kind of objective measures of comprehension, people actually often do get a lot of content, even if they say that they didn’t. And so again, if you really try to listen, you might surprise yourself and do better than you thought you would


HEFFNER: In the book do you differentiate between public discourse and private interpersonal exchange?


KINZLER: No, I don’t. I don’t think about, I don’t make that distinction in the book. Can you say more about, I can imagine…


HEFFNER: I mean our exchange now is being recorded and will be on PBS stations now because you’re watching it as viewers. I mean, the certain social cues that we are aware of in the dissemination of public, and this is of course a hugely influential deal in the social media environment, in which everything that was once private, largely is public when you have your phone on, or when you’re recording on Instagram or Snapchat or in some social media space. So I’m just wondering how cognizant are we of that differentiation now, or really have the lines been blurred to such an extent that how you say it in public is just how you say it everywhere.


KINZLER: Yeah. Right. So I guess, you know, are people, are people either better communicating or are they better at controlling their prejudice if they do have prejudice in public you know,


HEFFNER: What does your research say about that and how we can improve our communication, public or private?


KINZLER: So I think that one thing we can be better aware of is how much miscommunication is possible. And so, you know, I guess, well, maybe two things. So the first thing is how much miscommunication can be possible. So there’s all these studies that I talk about in my book saying that, you know, people, again, I say this thing out into the world, sometimes you don’t catch it, right. And that’s not just your fault. That could be my fault too, or it’s, you know, it’s about the interaction. But when people are listening to themselves talk, they think that they were much less ambiguous or they think that they were much better at communicating their content than they necessarily were. Now, interestingly third-party observers can be slightly better at picking out when miscommunication occurs. And so I do think that’s something for people to keep in mind, or if you’re on kind of, you know, if you’re watching a miscommunication happen and you’re a third party observer, you could try to do something to correct it.


HEFFNER: You’re based at the University of Chicago and, and there, there is a whole lexicon of, or surrounding free speech emanating from U Chicago in the wake of not just incidents on campuses, but many instances of police brutality and political corruption where people are saying it in the wrong way, that’s offensive, derogatory and sometimes lethal. So I wanted to get your sense of how we can be more instructive and trying to set a better example of how we can set it, how we can say it, if you will, because so much of the stimulus coming from politics right now, especially the occupant of the oval office is, is set in a way that is often counterfactual, is sort of deviously projecting falsehoods. But often has been in a race based way, viscerally racist towards specific groups. So, you know, we all are trying to do our part in modeling a discourse that is, that is better.


KINLWE: Yeah. So, I mean, I can’t, I can’t fix right, there’s a lot in what you just said that I’m certainly not going to be able to fix, but let me give one tip that I think people can think about in their own lives when they are communicating, which is that sometimes we talk about whole groups of people as kind of being the same, and this doesn’t have to be negative when you say it, right? But the thing is that our minds are really good at categorizing things in the world, but then also people, and it’s kind of like a fast, easy heuristic in some ways, just sort of a mental shortcut to categorize things now, when we do so, but we’re talking about a whole group of people, whether it’s a whole religious group or a whole member, people who share a racial identity who share a gender identity and so forth, what you get is you get it’s really fast for people to then kind of latch prejudice thinking onto that group. And so particularly if you’re talking to kids, which is always one place where I feel like, you know, as adults trying to kind of create a better environment and a better world, we can try to talk to kids in ways that try to explain what’s going on and give them some way to think about, to think about problems in the world. I think it’s really important wherever you can to talk about individual people as opposed to talking about entire classes of people.


HEFFNER: And also for those viewers who are seeing us talk about this subject, you know, I want to emphasize the extent to which in this moment of mobilization for racial justice, we have a certain privilege here in this conversation. And how do you, how are you cognizant in the way you’re saying that because we, you know, one of the mythologies around, I think the 2008 presidential campaign and election, and the way we viewed our progress as a nation, was that it was a one and done type thing. And that that post racial or colorblindness were, were, those things were real. And they may be to the extent that you can; you can build and cultivate an understanding of others in yourself that is ethical and responsible. But you know, we have to own that and own how you say it sometimes does and often historically has depended on who you’re with, you’re surrounded by. So how do you deal with that issue in the book of discourse that is inviting you know, intellectual honesty amongst peers of a certain cohort versus homogeneous contingency versus a heterogeneous cohort.


KINZLER: Yeah. So when you’re talking about this kind of these colorblind ideologies, I think that it’s sometimes, you know, this is something that comes up when people talk about parents and how parents interact with kids and what do you teach kids, right? So you’re in this place of, you know, tremendous axed and where we’re thinking about racial justice and where some kids don’t have the privilege of being colorblind because they, you know, face a society with structural racism that is impacting them. And then other kids could have sort of, you know, the possibility of parents who say, oh, we just won’t talk about race and it’s not really on our radar. And you know, in my research and my colleagues, we find that really early in life, kids are just remarkable cultural sponges. And so they’re going to pick up on what’s out there to be learned. And so in that sense, if you live in a society where racism is present, kids are going to pick up on that. And so in that sense, sort of like a colorblind ideology where you’re trying to just not talk about something isn’t going to work, because kids are smart and living in the world and picking up on things. And so in that sense, you really have to think about ways that you could talk about what’s happening in the real world that doesn’t make it be that basically provide some sort of context, either current day context or historical context that lets kids really think things through. And then I think the same thing’s true of adults too. That, you know, I think this idea of you know, there’s some research with adults showing that when people interact across race and they don’t talk about race, it can be actually more awkward or that people who, you know, when you’re kind of nervous and you don’t want to bring up these issues that actually can kind of derail the interaction, even if you, you thought, you know, you thought that you were trying to be kind of post-racial, but it, it doesn’t work at least not in our current society where racism is present.


HEFFNER: Right. So I do wonder though, if, if you’re contextualizing your remarks by invoking the reality of colorblindness or post-racial when those things maybe functions of a white supremacist and racist society. I just think that even those mere words in dialogue, if you’re referencing that there’s the possibility of communities that are post racial or that are colorblind, that, you know, I think a decade ago that would have been invited as part of a multi ethnic and empathetic understanding. And I think that that’s changed and it’s probably correct to change because of the, the conditions of injustice that have perpetuated racism. So, I mean, in this conversation or in conversations, when you invoke terms like that, you might be furthering the mythology in a destructive way. That’s just an open thought for you to respond to.


HEFFNER: Yeah. I mean, I guess I think there’s a lot of merit in us all questioning our assumptions, you know, absolutely. I think that’s really important. And to try to where we can, you know, to do better and to learn and to, you know, recognize places where we maybe weren’t aware of weren’t aware of situations of injustice, be it race or other kinds of injustice too. I do think it’s important to discuss, I guess I don’t, I think there’s a way to differentiate a colorblind ideology from the reality of like a colorblind possibility. I don’t know if that makes sense to you. So when I’m talking about a colorblind ideology, I think it’s this idea that a lot of people believed this kind of notion or thought that this was the right way to parent. And I think we have a lot of good evidence that that’s not in fact the right way to parent. Maybe there’s something else I should be calling it. I’m not sure, but I do think it’s important when people have an ideology to talk about it as a way to dispel it.


HEFFNER: That is useful. And if you go back to dr. King’s own words, it is do not judge me by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character. So there was a whole generation of discourse that was wanting equality as a measure of a, we should be judged as human beings. And now there is a undoubtedly unmistakably, a cultural shift, and, you know, the, I think the history here, it speaks to the fact that black Americans were not treated with dignity in the decades, subsequent to, I Have a Dream and subsequent to the Civil Rights Act, which has been eroded in recent years and decades. You talk a lot about kids, so, you know, there is an importance for how you say it with kids and adults. And how much of that from your scholarship is teachable and how much of it is just kind of osmosis and how much of it can be teachable when your milieu does not allow for the more advanced discourse or honest discourse.


KINZLER: Yeah. So these are really good and hard questions about what’s teachable. And what’s not what I’ll say is I think that kids have these kinds of cognitive building blocks that are going to lead them to detect human social groups. And that’s not something we’re going to change. So in some of my studies I find that even babies, as early as infancy, you start to see kind of the sort of preference for familiar. It’s unclear if it’s like me, like my parents, you know, something that’s sort of this preference for familiar, which makes some sense, and then the ability to categorize people. So to think that like two people we think of as kind of being alike in some way, share the same kind of deep essential property. So those abilities I would say, are really present from the beginning. And those aren’t, you know, we’re not going to turn into people who don’t see groups or who don’t like familiar or something that would not be possible. Now, what I think happens on top of that is that kids gain access to society and they gain access to it in a bunch of different ways. So parent talk is one thing, right? But we’re also talking about, you know, this kind of generation of parents who didn’t want to talk about race. Certainly those kids gained access to racial stereotypes and racial attitudes in their society because again, like you’re not just getting feedback from your parents. And so then I think there’s this interesting question about what role can parents play? What role can schools play? What role can the broader structure of society play? And I think probably all of those things are important. And one by itself is really hard because you’re kind of, you know, fighting, you’re really kind of fighting against these currents that are coming from other places.


HEFFNER: And it’s clear that this conversation would not have been reopened or renewed without the pandemic, without the mass mobilization for equality and response to inequities surrounding the health of our fellow human beings, our fellow Americans, the disproportionate outcomes in black and brown communities. Speaking as a psychologist, what has been most meaningful to you and these months that we’ve been sheltering in place about how society can recover mentally and morally?


KINZLER: I mean, I don’t, I would like to think of recovery. That’s, you know, it’s a nice prospect. It feels a little hard right now to think that far ahead. I think what you said about the broad based awareness of issues surrounding inequality and marginalization, it feels like it’s at the forefront now, what do we do with that? Or what do people do with that? Where’s that going to go? But it does feel like there’s an, you know, a moment of cultural reckoning where people are taking issues seriously and going to, you know, go from there. So I think that’s, you know, one possibility. I do have this, you know, kind of the interaction of interest in racial justice with being in social isolation, for, you know, social reduction for many people. It does make me nervous, for the following reason that I think that as we shrink our social networks, we get more homogeneous. And so what I mean by that is like a lot of people have really homogeneous social networks. And then right now what we’re doing is it’s like, you’re just trying to socialize with kind of a few people, right? And your kid who used to go to this really diverse, you know, classroom might be learning from home. And so you’re kind of actually decreasing the opportunities to engage with somebody who might be different from you in some way. And so that does make me nervous this, you know, this odd time of social isolation. And I think it’s something we might want to think about, about trying to purposefully promote diverse interactions, even if we’re socially isolated.


HEFFNER: Right. One of the struggles I’ve had is how do you say it, how do you speak with the person who’s filmed refusing to wear a mask and knowing who is denying science to the detriment of his or her community. And, you know, when it comes to science inspecting pathogens and transmissibility of disease, like there’s only one way to say it. And, and this is being mistaken for some kind of authoritarian or autocratic discourse. And how are you addressing that at one of the institutions that has lauded free speech and believes that we should have an open discourse, but maybe I should add a universally scientific, literate, honest discourse.


KINZLER: I mean, I think this is so hard because people’s thoughts here clearly aren’t actually about science, right? So clearly what’s happening is, or at least clear. I don’t know if it’s clearly, it seems clear to me as a psychologist, maybe somebody else has a different point of view. But speaking as a psychologist, what I see is people are invoking their tribe-like thinking, right? And so you see information that’s coming from your tribe and it feels compelling people trust information, when it’s from some sources over others, people build this kind of schema. And so, you know, you can have this representation of the world, you can get a bunch of facts and you kind of, encode the ones that fits your, that fit your schema better than the other ones. And so I think, I don’t think it’s the case that like, you know, science, it seems like it’s not a discourse about science, it’s discourse about social groups in politics, which really actually probably isn’t about the science.


HEFFNER: Right. And to that point, do you believe that the majority of people who were refusing to wear a mask and who were projecting psychologically, their anger at the condition of the country were all upset about it, the failed response, the negligence on the part of politicians, but do you think a majority of those people really do get it and, and refuse to enact their consciousness of it and something else has activated the tribal element that you’re talking about. And I’m just wondering how you say it to a science denial, denier and science denialists during a pandemic, how do you say it to them? How do you deal with that?


KINZLER: I mean, probably the best way to communicate is to find somebody who feels in-group to that person and to go through them. Like that seems like, you know, to find an intermediary who is, you know, somebody in the community who actually believes the science, or who sees this as protecting their community, that that’s probably the way to communicate


HEFFNER: So much about the vernacular as it is about the association.

KINZLER: Probably that’s my guess, at least, but it’s the method of the communication and who is it coming from? And it’s probably not so much about actually the content in some way.


HEFFNER: A final question, Katherine which is kind of a lightning round and expound as you see fit. But it is so imperative that when a new president, if and when a new president takes office, to reset the stage of our discourse of how we speak to each other, as Americans, as citizens, as human beings, that there is a relaunch or a kind of recalibration, I’ve talked about restoring civil society frequently on The Open Mind. So what do you think Vice President Biden could say that would be most helpful to resetting the discourse and how, how can he say it? Whether it’s in an acceptance speech at the DNC, the virtual DNC, whether it’s his inaugural address, wherever the venue may be, what, how can he say it to get this country back on track and in kind of unified discourse? We understand each other, respect each other and are going to embrace an America together.


KINZLER: So that’s, you know, that might be a, I don’t know that I have the, you know, the silver bullet there. I think that’s,


HEFFNER: But I think you’re in the right field to actually diagnose problem now. And then talk a little bit about the solution. We only have a couple minutes left so give your best shot at this.


KINZLER: Yeah. I mean, okay. So my best shot, but of course, it’s going to reveal my biases, right. Which is that I’m a developmental psychologist, but often I feel like one area where people can connect is over their children. And so, you know, I find that sometimes you’re talking, you know, it’s like, here’s this person who’s completely different from you. And somehow you had a baby at the same time and you’re dealing with like sleep, it’s like, nobody’s glamorous when they have a new baby. And, you know, every people kind of bond over that. And everybody, I do believe that everybody really cares about their children. So I’m often wondering if there’s a place where the idea of increasing our kids’ health, increasing their wellbeing, increasing their access to education, decreasing inequalities, which are just so rampant among children, not just among adults, but among children. That, that to me at least feels very compelling, though of course, I’m a developmental psychologist. And so maybe that’s where, you know, where that comes from.


HEFFNER: Well, I hear Beau Biden. Certainly Joe Biden has invoked his son, his late son. And there is something deeply authentic about the former vice president that I do think can resonate in a way that he says it. And he, there, you could do a whole ‘nother episode on, on how he said it over his career, because he’s had a lot of moments that have revealed his true feelings about something in a way that resonated, even if it might have been not the way you or I would have said it. But then he comes out and says, this is what I meant. And, I think that’s powerful. Katherine Kinzler author of “How You Say It.” Thank you so much for your time today.


KINZLER: Thank you so much. It was really; it was really interesting to talk with you. Thanks.

HEFFNER: You as well.

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