A couple of weeks ago I stumbled on a New Yorker article, which bounced all around the blogosphere and twitterverse, about the subtle but powerful effects that labels have on how we think and behave. The perceived masculinity of a name, for instance, will help determine career progression. And because of how maps are drawn, we tend to think of 'north' as uphill and 'south' as downhill.

When I looked up the author, Adam Alter, I was delighted to see he is an Australian working at New York University. It struck me that some the ideas in Adam's new book, Drunk Tank Pink: An Other Unexpected Forces that Shape how we Think, Feel and Behave, had some relevance to the world of international relations, which I am exploring with Adam in an email interview. Below is part 1.

SR: It seems to me the concept of 'disfluency' has something to offer to the world of diplomacy and international relations. You argue that people associate disfluency with danger and distance. People with hard-to-pronounce names tend to do worse in their careers; stocks with simple names perform better; if the name of an amusement park ride is difficult to pronounce, people will assume it is more dangerous than one which has a name that’s easier to process.

Could you briefly explain the concept of disfluency, and tell us what conclusions you could draw from it as it relates to the relations between states? For example, could something as simple as the anglicised spelling of a Chinese leader’s name influence how they are perceived by Western leaders, and how trustworthy or dangerous they seem?

AA: Philosophers, scientists, and politicians have emphasised the importance of choosing the right words, sentiments, and ideas — or content — for millennia. Much more recently, though, researchers have begun to consider the importance of how it feels to make sense of that content. Is it easy to process that information? Is it difficult to process that information? And does that experience of ease (fluency) or difficulty (disfluency) matter?

The same content can be easier or more difficult to process, and my colleagues and I have shown that this experience of disfluency matters. For example, people believe the statement 'woes unite foes' describes the world more accurately than does 'woes unite enemies', though both statements convey the same meaning. The difference is that the former, rhyming version of the aphorism is more fluent, or easier to process, and people mistake that sense of ease for a sense of truthfulness.

Similarly, some words are more disfluent than others (eg. 'utilise' vs 'use'), and some font choices are more difficult to read than others (eg. script fonts vs. standard san serif). In each case, the choice to use a more disfluent word or font changes how people perceive the written content.

For example, in addition to dampening truth, disfluency also conveys a sense of riskiness or danger; it lessens likability, identifiability, the perception of value; and it makes a concept seem more remote or distant from the person perceiving that concept. In the world of international relations, with its mix of cultures, languages, and worldviews, disfluency is omnipresent. One of the major challenges for diplomats is bridging those chasms as quickly and efficiently as possible, so the real business of international relations — the sharing of ideas and content — proceeds as smoothly as possible.

Foreign leaders who temporarily or permanently adopt anglicised names, and English-speaking leaders who similarly adopt Chinese names, do much to overcome the sense of disfluency that defines the experience of pronouncing foreign names, and that small concession has the potential to lead to smoother diplomatic interactions more broadly.