We use words to abstract things. When you say the word “tree,” you summon the abstract idea of a specific concrete thing that looks like this:
No real tree is being moved, harmed or otherwise affected when you use the word. This allows you to do whatever you want. With words, you can cut down trees, paint them pink, make them represent the entire history of life, make a political promise to plant two billion of them, or even pretend the entire world is a tree, and at no point are actual trees being involved.
That’s how powerful abstraction is. In fact, the use of language to manipulate imaginary objects is probably a defining feature of humanness and a big part of why we’re so successful as a species.
But sometimes, that power feels greater than it truly is.
“I don’t want [X] to matter”
Take charisma. It is an abstract word that refers to a real phenomenon, but that phenomenon is remarkably difficult to describe. A charismatic person is one who is persuasive, charming, attractive, fascinating, good at speaking, good at leading, or any number of similar ideas in that space. Fortunately, you generally don’t need to do the heavy work of defining what you mean: you can just use the convenient word “charisma” to encapsulate part or all of that.
Since you have this word, you may be tempted to say something like: “I don’t want to choose politicians according to their charisma. I want only their ideas to matter.”
The thing is, it’s really hard to actually ignore charisma. Suppose you heard ideas from two candidates during a debate. One is articulate, pleasant to listen to, and crystal clear. The other is boring, monotonous, and vague. Regardless of the quality of their ideas, chances are you’ll be convinced by the former. You may not even realize it’s because of their charisma.
It’s not impossible to discount charisma. You’d need to make a conscious effort and say, “I know this guy is much better at expressing his ideas, but that doesn’t mean his ideas are the best.” And you need to do that for his seductive voice. And his joke telling. And whatever other qualities get lumped into the word “charisma.”
Hiding away all of these things, and using the word “charisma” as if it were something you had control over, actually puts you at greater risk of falling for charisma. In fact, it puts you at the same risk level as someone who’d have no awareness of charisma at all.
Marketing works in a similar way. You want to buy the best product, not the one that is best marketed. But how do you know which product is the best? You need to acquire the information somehow. And unless you’re an insider, the information you’ll get is likely to be heavily influenced by various forces — the product’s name and design, or the number of times you’ve heard of it, which is directly related to the money spent on advertising — that we often call, together, “marketing.”
To complicate matters a bit, marketers know that people don’t like “marketing” (especially ads), so the successful ones go out of their way to make their marketing not feel like marketing. You didn’t pick the restaurant that had paid ads on Facebook — you just went with the one your friend recommended. It never occurred to you that this recommendation might have been the result of clever marketing.
(as usual, there’s a relevant xkcd)
So, just like true charisma includes the capacity to win over people who are wary of abstract “charisma,” true marketing is able to reach even people who actively dislike abstract “marketing.”
My third example is networking. People think of networking as this thing you do. You go to “networking” events. You “network” by adding people on LinkedIn. You complain that you can’t get a good job because only the people with a better “network” get them, regardless of their competence.
It’s easy to realize that networking just means meeting people, but somehow we rarely think of it as “networking” when you make a new friend and eventually get help from that friend. Even when you get a very clear advantage from your network — say, you have a family member who’s good at manual work and gets some improvement done on your house — you won’t think of it as a result of your networking. I mean, that’s what family and friends are for, right?
And if you wanted to get rid of networking as a hiring criterion — well, you’d be attempting to tame something that’s too strong. The better-networked people are more likely to have heard of the job, or to know somebody at the company who can refer them. You can’t do much against that (and probably shouldn’t try).
Abstracting power away
The phrasal verb to abstract away is used mostly in computer science. It means to hide the complexity of a task behind some sort of black box, in order to simplify. You don’t care how exactly a computer program sorts the items in a list; you’re happy to just click some command called “Sort alphabetically” and trust that your Excel data is now in alphabetical order.
More generally, I propose to use this verb for situations where using a word — i.e., abstracting a thing — hides most of the power of the thing.
Abstracting away is a step beyond plain abstracting. (Plain abstracting boils down to using language, so this isn’t surprising.) When you refer to a concrete object like a tree, nothing powerful gets hidden. Trees don’t have any power over you1At least, I hope they don’t..
If the power of a thing is obvious, you’re also not usually abstracting it away. It’s quite clear to everyone that “gravity” or “the government” refer to important forces that influence people, so there’s little risk of thinking you have a better hold on them than you really do.
Charisma, marketing, and networking are in the dangerous middle: they’re powerful concepts, but not obviously so. That’s why it’s easy to abstract them away, and get confused about the world.
So, be careful. Abstract language has given you great power. But there are other things out there that are powerful. Don’t think you can defeat them that easily.
Thanks to Annie Bastien and Gregory Yang Kam Wing for reading a first draft and providing discussion.