Sensory Sketching Workshop: Language as an obstacle
What happens when you organize a workshop with academics in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)? 🤯 and over-dosing on inspiration — aka our workshop at the CHI 2022 conference, Sketching Across the Senses.
From a participant researching the quantified self to organizers baking with data or specializing in sound and sonification, there were enough dream projects to almost make me consider going back to school to get my Ph.D. in HCI.
You can get a sense of the flow of ideas from our jam-packed workshop agenda:
If you’re getting FOMO, Jordan and I will be organizing other workshops that you can join. Until then, the next few newsletters will share some of our favorite moments, activities, and takeaways, the latter of which were inspired by quotes from workshop participants that were turned into the section headings. Unless noted, all the quotes in this newsletter are reflections and thoughts from the participants.
What sense are you most excited about, most comfortable about, and most familiar with? Feel free to put your answers in this form, if you want to play along.
We were most excited about touch, most comfortable with sight, and most unfamiliar with smell. I wasn’t surprised by these results — most people in our group were from western cultures, whose vocabularies are largely biased toward sight over smell descriptions. I think it’s safe to say that by the end of the workshop, the awareness of our unfamiliarity and inability to express ourselves with scents increased, perhaps even deepening our feeling of unfamiliarity with smell. Consequently, we had a particularly difficult time describing and sharing our experiences with scents.
“Language kept butting in”
As a former linguist, the role of language in shaping our perception of reality is inherently fascinating to me, and a question I’ve been pondering and engaging in since the start of my multi-sensory data explorations. Like the workshop participants, I am frustrated with the richness of my visual descriptive vocabulary compared to the inadequacy of my smell-cabulary. When I was scribbling all the scents that passed my way while walking through the 11th arrondissement in Paris, floral perfumes made a frequent occurrence, yet the best I could muster was describing them with comparative terms (“sweeter floral”, “cloying floral”, “delicate floral”). It’s like when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t grasp it. I could perceive the differences in floral perfumes, but I couldn’t describe them in words.
One participant shares this sentiment:
Language as an obligatory point of passage, and the limits of vocabulary. What is the role of language?
Call it fate or coincidence, but only a couple of days following the workshop, I came across the book Language vs. Reality: Why Language is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists by Nick Enfield, arguing that language is a device for social coordination.
Why the word exists is because people have been using it to solve coordination problems. To a certain extent, how that works will depend on the structure of reality, on the nature of trees and salt and spoons and things like that. But the very fact that the word itself exists and is circulating and is being learned by people means that it’s being used by people. The the question is – what are they using it to do? The answer is – they’re using it to coordinate their activities. -Nick Endfield
I read Enfield’s argument with sensory experiences at the forefront of my mind. The fact that we are so uncomfortable with describing odors illustrates how we don’t rely on smell to coordinate with others: transmitting instructions (‘it smells like it’s burning - will you check on the cake?”), Intensity:
smell: I smelled mint leaves. They have a strong smell and [are] pleasant. When I cut the leaves into smaller pieces the smell got stronger
While engaging in a participant-created smell activity, one partaker seemed to doubt the possibility of using smell to transmit information via language:
Is possible to use a "scent language" to metaphorically get ideas across?
It might actually be the opposite - the majority of terms we use to describe smells are “borrowed” from other senses. Below are some examples I pulled from our participants.
smell: peanuts - rich roasted flavor, spicy (pepper) but also gentle
Faint scent of both plastic and something similar to peppermint, the scent feels "warm" and "old"
(highlights by me)
The fact that we (and by “we” I mean the western culture that I grew up in) don’t have any specific words for smells or smelling mirrors our dependency and preference for sight - a sense that has physical evidence for communicating and sharing with others. We perceive visuals in a roughly similar way, provided that we, and our speaking partners, are visually matched (e.g. without color blindness or other blindness).
We can, of course, distinguish noticeable differences between millions (maybe trillions!) of smells, but language introduces a radical reduction. The vocabulary we have to distinguish them is a teeny tiny fraction of what we can actually perceive. Hence everyone’s frustration! (“I know it’s different, but I can’t verbalize how”). As a language learner, I am used to the feeling of understanding, but not having the words to respond, which may explain why I wasn’t as frustrated as others.
So, we don’t have a huge use for a precise and elaborate smell-cabulary. We don’t use smell much to navigate our world - I can’t use my sense of smell in Paris to find the nearest metro, I use Google Maps. We use invisible lines appearing on these maps to map territory, but not every culture visualizes frontiers. The Desana, an indigenous people of Columbia, consider that their own odors mark out their territory and use olfaction to move about in the forest and navigate their world.
Although Enfield sums up his argument by saying: "We do not coordinate around reality but around versions of reality hewn by words,” he is referring to the western world. The Desna do use smell to coordinate their world, relying on scents rather than physical landmarks, and consequently, they have a vocabulary that represents smell's importance in their quotidian life.
Instead of using a rich and precise vocabulary to describe smells, we often resort to metaphors. Do you think metaphors can faithfully describe the smell experience? What about other sensory experiences? In the next newsletter, our workshop participants will continue to feed the discussion, this time with rich metaphorical examples of sensory experiences. If you are keen on being a part of the conversation, take a break, and go on a sensory walk.
A newsletter about sensory sketching, and representing data with all our senses.