Revealing our political views in the way we talk

A Victoria University of Wellington linguistics graduand has found Wellingtonians may be giving away more about their political affiliations than they think when discussing politics.

Jay Woodhams on the steps to Parliament

Jay Woodhams' PhD  investigates how sociolinguistic factors can indicate Wellington voters’ political attitudes.

Jay interviewed Wellington voters across a broad social and political spectrum, discussing politics and current affairs. He then analysed the participants’ linguistic and narrative techniques and explored how these behaviours were tied to their political views.

Jay’s study focused exclusively on voters within Wellington, which he says highlighted the linguistic nuances particular to the city’s denizens.

“Physical location influences our political identities because it becomes a way of orienting yourself and your views. You can see it in the way Wellingtonians talk about how we’re a smaller town and we’re a left-wing town. That comes through a lot. There’s also a sense that, being the capital city, we’re more politically oriented than people in other cities.”

He says the participants’ language was often underscored by egalitarian values. “Egalitarianism has historically been part of our national identity, and throughout these discussions I noticed participants’ linguistic choices indicated a strong desire for social equality. You wouldn’t necessarily get that in other countries,” he says.

Jay says people are typically unaware that how they talk about politics and current affairs can signal their political identities, even when they are trying to be politically neutral.

“The way people use pronouns like ‘us’ and ‘them’ indicates where their affiliations lie, and word choice has a similar effect. For example, whether people use the words ‘privatisation’ or ‘mixed ownership’ when discussing asset sales gives an indication of how they feel about the issue.

Jay says one of the biggest surprises of his research was the way language can contradict the participant’s central political positioning.

“I discovered people don’t always make linguistic choices in a way that would be consistent with political behaviour. Their language may point to a particular ideology, but then they may vote in the opposite direction. This shows how complex our political identities are, and that they’re not always logical or consistent.”

One of Jay’s supervisors, Victoria University Linguistics Professor Janet Holmes says: “Jay’s thesis addresses the big question of how we, as citizens of our capital city, are influenced by political talk. Living in New Zealand’s capital makes it difficult to avoid developing a political identity, and language is always part of that.”