Mamihlapinatapai: Noun – A look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something they both desire, but which neither wants to begin.
This was listed in the 1994 Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s ‘most succinct word’. It comes from the language of the Yaghan, a people living on the southern tip of South America, and numbering only about 1,500. Although 19th Century British explorers described them as ‘savages’, they’ve got a word for a very complex emotional state that people everywhere would immediately understand, but couldn’t name.
Sometimes a language has the word for something, and sometimes it just doesn’t, no matter how real that something is. The vocabulary of a language depends a lot on history and happenstance, and this means many subtle things won’t be given the honour of a specific word or phrase. Thankfully, words are just one way in which humans communicate. We can draw on a host of things such as tone, volume, image, metaphor, allusion, and body language, to name just a few. It’s these which let us express reality, fantasy and lived experience in all their intricate nuance.
Words are just one way in which humans communicate. We can draw on a host of things such as tone, volume, image, metaphor, allusion, and body language, to name just a few.
Also, it’s these that creatives, copywriters, and visual designers rely on to do their jobs well. But there is another part of their job: explaining the rationale for their ideas to their stakeholders. And when it comes to explaining or rationalising something, words are really all they’ve got. Rationalisation is defined as the act of trying to explain or justify something with logical reasons. Logic is constructed from a sequence of arguments, and arguments are constructed from words with specific meanings.
So on the one hand there’s ‘human communication’, with its myriad potential forms, which fills in the gaps left by vocabulary. And on the other hand, there’s rationalisation, with its reliance on logic made of arguments, and arguments made of words. So, is it any surprise that things can get lost in translation? Any surprise that something palpably clear on seeing or hearing, might have no way to describe succinctly and straightforwardly?
Maybe that’s why rationalisation in the creative industry attracts much eye-rolling and accusations of vague bullshitting. You often hear the phrase ‘post-rationalisation’ muttered with a degree of cynicism, as if creative work which was not rational from the start is at best whimsical, at worst snake oil. This is unfair – even good rationalisation will inevitably involve some word acrobatics to try and give form to something that is inherently irrational in its origins.
Even good rationalisation will inevitably involve some word acrobatics to try and give form to something that is inherently irrational in its origins.
But more importantly, rationalisation is always going to be incomplete. It is at best a primer for the presentation of the creative work itself. Instead of letting rationale take centre stage in discussions about creative work, stakeholders should look at the work, interact with it, live with it for a little while, ‘feel’ it. This is the process the creatives will have gone through, taking a variety of perspectives, sketching, and re-sketching, writing and re-editing, until the result starts to feel right. The work was created on these terms, so why not judge it on these same terms? If something looks good, reads well, or gets a laugh, why stay attached to the incomplete logical explanation that’s sitting beside it?
So remember, if you see great work that fits, if it is simply ‘cool’, ‘funny’, or has a certain je ne sais quoi, it’s ok. It could be THE idea. It just might not have its own mamihlapinatapai.