Using the same words but speaking different languages: Listening practices as social differentiation


In the past ten years, organizations supporting social entrepreneurship have proliferated across Oslo, Norway. These groups, which promote projects addressing social issues through business-based strategies, use a common entrepreneurial register, with words like “impact” and “incubator,” and frequent code-switching between Norwegian and English. While many people in Oslo hear all these organizations as the same, my interlocutors at one such organization, which I call Inspire, claimed there were important differences in this field, from organizations that were more profit-driven to those that were more concerned with challenging traditional social hierarchies. While they agreed social entrepreneurs across the city were using the same words, they insisted, as one interlocutor succinctly put it “we’re not speaking the same language at all.” This paper asks how Inspire staff listened to other organizations in a way that allowed them to hear differences that most people could not. I argue that adopting particular listening practices was key to how Inspire staff differentiated themselves from seemingly similar organizations. These practices included two components. First, they were looking out for and taking up signs beyond the denotational content that indexed the speaker’s relationship to their proposed social business. Second, their listening practices extended beyond the moment of aural reception as they listened for what I call listening chains, or who the speaker was listening to.