Home All Attenti Alla Suocera! Language & Reality Through Social Construction

Attenti Alla Suocera! Language & Reality Through Social Construction

written by Louis Alloro 29 October 2008

Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP '08, is a cofounder of a 6-month Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology Program, Fellow at the Center for Advancement of Wellbeing at George Mason University, and founder of SOMO Leadership Labs, a community intervention. Web site. Full Bio.

Articles by Louis are here.

We have ChoicesWe form habits of thought around stories, and each time we retell them the old way, we reinforce the habit. The ruts get deeper and harder to get out of. But what if we told different stories?

It’s About Stories

Today I actually stopped a client cold in the middle of a story. We were talking about his being single and to illustrate in his mind the “why” of this reality, he began to tell me a story about a past relationship—about one that had failed. His story was about blame and fault. It was entirely focused on what was wrong, nothing about what was right.

The story seemed to slip off his tongue as if he had told it many times before. This was the story. But when I called his attention to his ‘same old tune,’ I asked him to consider this story as just a story. I then asked him what would be possible if we allowed ourselves to reconstruct it—to retell it or reframe it, so that it’s not about losing, but about winning instead.

It’s About Language, Relationships, and Meaning

This appreciative approach forms the premise of social constructionism, a school of thought based in the abundant idea that reality is created by people within relationships and through language. In other words, reality is what we story it to be—in our heads and in through our words (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2004; Gergen, 1999; Kelm, B. 2005; Quinn, 2004; Stavors & Torres, 2005).

Social constructionism is derived from constructivism, which is a cognitive theory suggesting that knowledge is constructed by learners through complex knowledge structures or frames, including the unique experience of the individual (Dewey, 1916). Social constructionism is more of a collective practice, where meaning is generated between people, locally and through language. As Anderson (1997) offers, we are “linguistically constructed, relational selves.”
Vase A social constructionist would argue that language has no currency without relationships. Consider why we call this a vase. Sure, we can trace the etymology and history of the term, but ultimately, why we call this a vase and not a car is because we (the collective we) have agreed to call it a vase. It is a choice we have made to frame and define this object in this particular way. We have agreed on it. And it works.

But What About When It Doesn’t Work?

Mother in LawMy sister has a sign in her kitchen, Attenti Alla Suocera which translates from Italian to English: “Beware of the Mother-in-Law.” We all know what this means. Its meaning transcends cultures and times.

And it is thorough our oral traditions, our languages, and our habits that we pass this interpretation from generation to generation. Is it no surprise then, that so many people dislike their in-laws, or is it just coincidence? Consider how truth is made.

Social constructionists argue that language creates meaning and meaning creates reality. Language then creates our reality. This is done coactively within the context of our relationships. Gergen (1999) says, “Meanings are born of coordinations among persons – agreements, negotiations, affirmations . . . relationships stand prior to all that is intelligible.”

Within our relationships, we have great opportunities, every day, to make them whatever we so choose. Consider how actively you involve yourself in the creation of new realities for your relationships. At home? At work? What do we choose when our relationships are not working for us anymore? Do we ignore or do we create?

Social Construction Makes It Right

Transparency and attunement are two-way streets. To have authentic relationships, we must create them.

In other words, if you want a better relationship with your mother-in-law, you have to invite her into that possibility by being different yourself. How? You literally have to change the words you use with her. As Cooperrider says, “Words create worlds.” We must choose them carefully.

Social constructionists like Cooperrider and Gergen consider the enormity of such choices and invite us into safe spaces to converse (literally meaning “to turn with”) and create new language, new traditions, new ways of being together.

Coupled with the evidenced-based tools from positive psychology, these new ways could lead to increased well-being—upward spirals for individuals and the communities we comprise. Framing and reframing our perceptions of reality towards the positive allow us to create our own positive change.

So, then, what is reality? A social constructionist would suggest it is whatever we create. The idea is simple, but the consequence huge. Imagine what becomes possible when we realize that anything is possible.

I promise-this is not just an empty cliché; this is more than just “The Secret.” Of course there are things that happen outside of our control, but we choose the perspective with which we judge them. Social constructing requires that we activate our right brains, enable our strengths, use our own agency and coactively develop the pathways to create the lives we most want to live (i.e., Lopez, Snyder, et al., 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Video Illustration

Jill Bolte Taylor’s video on TED As brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes her stroke, she demonstrates the power of changing the story.

Post Script
Behind any science is also the art. Stay tuned to PPND on November 4, when guest author Eleanor Chin reviews B. Zander and R. Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility, an inspiring story about using social constructionism in your life and work.



Anderson, H. (1997). Conversation, Language, And Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach To Therapy. New York: Basic Books.

Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.

Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.

Gergen, K. (1999). An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage.

Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., Turner, J. L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 388-404). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stavros, J.M. & Torres, C.B. (2006). Dynamic Relationships: Unleashing the Power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Living. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos.

Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.

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waynej 29 October 2008 - 3:53 pm

Louis – its interesting how some things are hardwired into our brain – show an infant a picture of a snake and they respond with fear – perhaps this is social constructivism being passed through the generations at a genetic level.

I’m not sure whether you have to put a positive spin on everything (“what was good about the relationship”). Mindfulness would suggest that you take the judgement out of your thinking. Perhaps thats the difference between an Eastern and Western perspective. If you are interested I can send you some research on mindfulness. Just email me (contact details at http://www.i-i.com.ai)

Emily Gerrett 29 October 2008 - 4:36 pm

This was a great article for those of us who are just starting out becoming acquainted with positive pyschology and its concepts – thank you for breaking it down into easily digestible pieces that weren’t overly simplified and linking them to humor, anecdotes and references to published works.

Kirsten Cronlund 29 October 2008 - 8:05 pm


I am especially interested in the role of words and conversations as ways to reframe and create different outcomes. Just today I was driving home from work and another driver was clearly offended by the fact that I followed the car in front of me over a one-car-wide bridge. As I passed by her, she put her fingers up to her windshield in the shape of an L. The message was unmistakable – she was calling me a loser. What would have happened, however, if we had both had an opportunity to get out of our cars and engage in a dialogue about our assumptions about driving over the bridge. I could have told her that I think it is much more efficient to have a couple cars go over at a time, and that I am more than happy to wait my turn when it’s the other side’s time to go. It simply seems to make more sense to me. She also would have been able to tell me about the hurry that she must have been in to get home, or to tell me her ideas about why she thinks it’s best for one car to go at a time.

My 14-year-old son James was sitting next to me when this all transpired and, although I wasn’t able to have the conversation with the woman in the other car, I was able to talk through some of these ideas with James. My hope is that the reality James and I constructed through our shared dialogue was about compassion for the other driver and about the possibility for a different kind of communication when people take the time to have conversations. It takes consciousness and commitment, but this is the place where realities are transformed.

Thanks for the article, Louis.


Louis Alloro 29 October 2008 - 10:28 pm

Wayne, I agree that seeing everything “all positive all the time” is NOT the way to go. I like to think about positive psychology in light of being more flexible with thought patterns (not more positive or less negative, per se). Yes, this requires mindfulness. I also think it requires creative license– to story our narratives towards whichever way may increase our well-being. I leave that interpretation up to you!

Take Kirsten’s example. The woman who “flipped her the PC bird” had her story, Kirsten had her own story. Both are legitimate. They own them.

What Kirsten did CHOOSE to do with her son, though, was brilliant. In that moment, she and James *created meaning* in talking through the many potential reasons for why it all unfolded that way. As such, no one was right or wrong. What was…was…but what ‘will be’ now (at least for Kirsten, James, and maybe some of us) includes a bit more compassion, flexibility, and, dare I say, mindfulness?

Thanks, Wayne, Emily, and Kirsten for adding your voices to this already generative discussion . . . let’s keep it going.


Therese 30 October 2008 - 11:27 am

I thoroughly enjoyed your article. How the brain perceives different situations via the senses is quite fascinating. Language and behaviour can be intrepreted in so many ways with our emotions, I believe, significantly affecting our perception of reality. Past experiences and learned behaviour or habits greatly influence our perception and perhaps reframing or retelling the “story” in a more positive manner can help one move on and let go, to maybe not become so “attached” for it is only a story so why not choose a happy ending? Thanks for the article it was great.


Louis Alloro 30 October 2008 - 12:55 pm

Hi Therese! Thanks for your two-cents. You seem to hit the nail on the head: “language and behavior can be interpreted in so many ways.” Some of the evidenced-based tools emerging from positive psych can be so helpful in seeing the multiplicities of perspectives.

From my own experience, I can tell you how liberating it is to broaden perceptions–to see them all as socially-constructed stories that we actually live into. Question remains: which ones do we tell ourselves–individually? Collectively?

I think we need each other to help get conscious of our stories–as Jon Haidt says, “We are ultrasocial hive creatures!”


waynej 30 October 2008 - 1:41 pm

Louis, I have notice that you reference AI alot. I’m going to assume that you are an AI disciple. I went to a presentation on AI last night – which I have to admit left me a little underwhelmed.

When I asked for the evidence of efficacy (as any propopenet of PP should) of AI they gave me lots of anecdotes but no hard evidence.

Subsequenly I went home and looked through the research databases and guess what – I couldn’t find any studies that would support the efficacy of AI. The studies tended to be narratives with little data or if they had data they generally didn’t have controls in place.

It appears like coaching there is lots of rhetoric but little hard evidence (ie potentially good idea that is yet to be proven)

Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place. Do you know of any peer reviewed research that has a control in place (preferably another intervention) that supports the efficany of AI. This would be greatly apreciated.

Louis Alloro 30 October 2008 - 5:26 pm

I hear you, Wayne and understand your frustration. I do understand the important contributions of experimental science. I must admit, thought, that I am not a data guy as you can probably tell by my writing. While I understand the importance of it, I kind of see it as just “one story”–a tradition developed over time that communicates in a foreign numerical language (that an extreme social constructionists may argue is elitist anyhow) to present data, which is just another construction at a given point in time.

Personally, I wonder how data could accurately represent the culture of an institution. AI’s about changing culture–and this includes many environmental variables to which I’m unsure an instrument (or even a group of them) can fully capture. This stuff is dynamic, Wayne, and needs to be lived. All I can say is that it’s working for me–in my life, in my environment, and that’s because I’m mindful and intentional about my inviting others into the creative process of social construction.

I believe it: Shift happens. Can you measure shift or just feel it?

Jeff 30 October 2008 - 8:25 pm

Data is a way to quickly make relationships visible. As informative as a graph or chart can be, there are limits to what data can represent. If I say that Company X makes 1000 more widgets every week this year over last year, then that is something objective and measurable. If I say that 85 people report feeling better about the climate in Company Y, that too is measurable and countable. These are great kinds of information to represent statistically, much like a scoreboard at a baseball game.

When dealing with more subjective topics, I think data can become less reliable. Saying that I am 9.3 percent happier just doesn’t make sense to me. How would you justify that number? Some data is more reliable and useful than other data.

I took a course in positive behavior supports for schools. The instructor was in love with data collection and I found it a bit off-putting. On one hand, data can make a huge difference. Knowing whether an intervention had its desired effect is relevant. A small behavioral change that might get overlooked can be captured with data collection techniques, proving an intervention successful. A drawback to relying solely or too heavily on data is distancing onself from the subjective & moment-to-moment measures.

Besides, you can never collect data on all the behavior in a given period of time. It is very unlikely you’ll capture all the elements in a given behavioral context. Here I think the gestalt or subjective brain has a potential advantage over a frequency-counting, number crunching brain. Seeing the big picture and perspective taking play a crucial role in researching and creating solutions in real-life.

Imagine taking a clipboard with you on a date. She kissed me 6.8 times in 112 minutes. Does this indicate that she wants to pursue an intimate encounter? My face is 93 percent blushing with a mix of 23 percent embarassment and 77 percent excitement. I coughed 12 times. Hello, is any of this relevant? The role of subjective judgment will not be denied.

waynej 30 October 2008 - 8:58 pm

Louis – but the whole point of PP is evidence based. I’m not sure how you can bring AI into PP unless there is evidence?

Remember the content description of every web page on PPND reads “Positive Psychology News Daily – Daily boost of research-based happiness”

In my corporate work data is critical – no data and it just sounds like pop psychology.

Louis Alloro 30 October 2008 - 10:45 pm

I couldn’t agree more with you Wayne. Data is crucial piece. I do have a Masters in PP–I know the scientific method is an important piece. I do think that we’d be limiting ourselves if we said everything introduced to PP needs evidence from the outset.

Jeff–thanks for joining the discussion. Sometimes, I think what gets lost in the process of a measured world are the human (“the subjective moment to moment”) aspects of social transformation.

Is there a way to bridge this gap?

My point is (and I hope you’d agree) that when you combine a social constructionist mindset with the usage of evidenced-based tools, magical things can happen. Whatever you choose to measure, you choose to measure. Different organizations will have different requirements. Determining those requirements and fulfilling them in metrics will be the jobs of the change-agents and participants when it comes to the AI process. It would be easy to measure productivity in terms of bottom line for many companies, but what do we miss there? Qualitative data can be rich too.

I have reached out to David Cooperrider and asked him to join this discussion. Hopefully, he will…

In the meantime, does anyone else have some thoughts on this?

waynej 30 October 2008 - 11:56 pm

Louis, I agree you have got to start somewhere. Otherwise how do new ideas develop? But they should be tested.

How many fads have you seen in education that when tested were proven to be wrong? The whole spelling thing is a classic example of this.

I’m looking forward to David’s insights?

Louis Alloro 31 October 2008 - 8:53 am

David Cooperrider sends this data:

• A major food company used an AI approach for its strategic planning—bringing over 1000 company associates together in a series of summits to design the plan. A year later the company reported a record 300% increase earnings, a 75% decrease in work in
absenteeism, and was later recognized as one of the top 100 best places to work in the nation.

• Two four?billion dollar companies used AI to create “a merger of strengths” realizing $75 million dollars in
synergies in the first 100 days, and an estimated $300 million in synergy savings in the first year. • A cover story in Forbes traces the revenue growth and tells the story of Appreciative Inquiry at one of America’s fastest growing Fair Trade premium coffee roasters. When the company began using AI as its organization development approach stock prices hovered around $18 dollars per share—today, five years later, the stock continues to skyrocket at over $100 (NASDAQ). • A Fortune 500 computer company with a Division’s sales of $28 billion, has used
appreciative inquiry to drive its phenomenal growth in a internal branding project that embeds the company’s identity and story into everything it does;

• One of the world’s largest trucking companies trained 10,000 people in Appreciative Inquiry and used AI to launch its LEAN operations program. A year later the company reported record quarterly earnings across its 300 facilities. Studies then showed that 80% of the $75 million in operating ratio improvements came from five facilities where AI was ‘piloted”.

David urges you to check out the meta-analysis of Gervase Bushe as well: http://www.gervasebushe.ca/aimeta.htm

Wayne, I’m not sure what you refer to with a “fad in spelling.” It’s important to help kids learn to spell.How we do this–what pedagogy we use–is another point. To influence pedagogy, we need to help people change the way they think. AI helps to do that.


waynej 31 October 2008 - 5:50 pm

Louis – But is it the Hawthorne effect (the equivalent of the placebo in medicine or the dodo effect in psychology)?

What would happen if they piloted another program in an equivalent organisation that taught everyone to give a massage? Would it be more powerful?

Or perhaps told all the truck drivers to wear pink spotted shirts because it will improve their ability to think laterally?

That’s why controlled studies are important. And yes I know its hard to do these studies.

Louis Alloro 1 November 2008 - 10:03 am

I agree with you that controlled studies are important. AI as an intervention seems much less an intervention and more of a framework or methodology with with an intervention can be used.

The United Nations Global Compact held a world summit—the largest of its kind—between 500 business leaders and the UN, and they selected Appreciative Inquiry as the summit methodology. The summit ignited a huge momentum for growth: by 2007 over 2,000 more corporations joined in the Global Compact’s mission—doubling its size. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan praised the AI process and said it would not have been possible to achieve the results or the large scale impact without AI.

He wrote “I would like to commend you more particularly for your methodology of Appreciative Inquiry and to thank you for introducing it to the United Nations. Without this, it would have been very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to constructively engage so many leaders of business, civil society and government.”

How would you control for this? Allow only part of the UN to use the AI process and another part to use a different methodology? It seems to me that authenticity is lost in that process…


waynej 1 November 2008 - 3:02 pm

Louis – easy – vary the methodology used in the workshops – randomly assign different methodologies.

One of themethodologies might be a traditional SWOT analysis under the guise of AI. Another might by the balanced scorecard appraoch and a third might be lateral thinking.

When I first started my career as an engineer (before I studies psychology) I was sent to the states to learn a methodology called “At your best” which sounds very much like AI.

I still use a somewhat abbreviated version of the methodology.But the scientist in me knows that it will appeal to certain people.

Its interesting – since we started this discussion I have been doing some research on an organisation that I’m about to start running EI+ workshops – and I’ve found out that the HR Manager is into AI. I probably will have to get more familiar with AI.

A question for you – have you thought abou using the AI approach on AI – ie what works about AI? I’d speculate the pareto principle would apply – 20% of the methodology gets 80% of the results.

Jeff 1 November 2008 - 4:02 pm

Research is devilishly subtle. I’ve only had an intro course on evaluating educational research but even that little introductory course made me skeptical of even double-blind studies.

Its like this: everything that a human touches has the taint of bias. Even if you think you’ve eliminated judgment, sometimes a little sneaks in. Ultimately it comes down to what you choose to believe. I hate to say it but it is an article of faith in the end. Usually the hardest issues are the ones where there are heaps of quality research on both sides of an argument. Then what do you do? You make a judgment based on frail but relatively successful human experience.

Don’t get me wrong, the double-blind outcome study is a wonderful and clever piece of work. I’d even say it is the best thing going for experimental researchers that I know of. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give 100 percent certainty, just a greater percentage of it.

Finally, just when you think you’ve discovered something objective, partisanship creeps in. Democrats say the data shows one thing, Republicans claim it says something else. It may be identical data from the SAME study! Human interest can foul the best laid plans of researchers.

Sophistry twists a lot of well-crafted research. Take teaching spelling. There are traditionalists who would have us teach spelling as our ancestors did. There are progressives who support not teaching spelling at all but letting students discover spelling through writing and whole-text osmosis.

Here’s the most outrageous news. A research study can literally stink and still it receives second, third and fourth party citations. This is passing the trash. I’m talking peer-reviewed research that has editorial bias skewing what gets published and what remained unpublished. There are fads in research just like in other fields. Popular movements like Positive Psychology get published while they are HOT and when they are NOT they fade away. Remember Behaviorism? NOT HOT so much these days.

So if you don’t either conduct the research carefully and professionally YOURSELF or become an excellent consumer of research with lots of time on your hands to hunt down primary sources, you might get duped by articles that unwittingly are biased or just misinterpreted a citation.

Modern day high priests are researchers and the public are its flock.

waynej 1 November 2008 - 4:20 pm

Jeff, agreed there is lots of crap research. I’m amazed at the number of times an abstract says one thing but the data says another. Coaching and EI are classic examples of this.

Louis Alloro 2 November 2008 - 1:59 pm

Jeff, Yes, yes and yes! I couldn’t agree more and you stated it so perfectly. Thank you. In the spirit of western culture, we often tend to believe that *T*ruth comes apart from us, not including us. This is a big fallacy.

Consider where experimental researchers find their niches. I know that as a researcher, my questions stem from my own curiosity in the world–which is based on my own experience–which forms my by own belief systems–which influence my own actions and language. For many researchers, it is our life’s calling–which in knowing, is shown to lead to increased meaning and life satisfaction. Imagine what it might be like to see more people given the opportunity to explore their own questions? (Wow! This is AI…and a developing type of research called Action Research)

From this lens, I think we can see quantified data as just “a” (albeit very good) story; as we fail to notice that, we give up our own agency in the process of meaning-making…living.

A constructionist research method invites dialogue–all voices. It is more provisional than essential, considering knowledge to be the production of collective and local meaning-making.

Constructionists argue that the terms by which we understand the world “are neither required nor demanded by “what there is” (Gergen, 1999, p. 47), but instead by whatever we construct or mean them to be. Constructionists are concerned more with pragmatic utility and application of “truth” than with its validity per se. Through this lens, we are liberated to construct the truth in whichever ways we need, want, and value, as opposed to relying on the historical and arguably elitist traditions of science and religion to hand it to us unquestioned.

That’s why it’s important to become a good consumer of information. We need to teach people to ask their questions (again, AI!). Social-Emotional Leaders help people do this and in the process, are transformed themselves. “Imagine what becomes possible when *we* realize that anything is possible.” This is a collective effort. We need to be Action Researchers.

Wayne–Coaching and EI are *emerging fields*. Give them some time. This is all a process…

Jeff 3 November 2008 - 6:18 pm


Thank you. Please say Pecan Pie with a nasal accent 5 times fast (or just watch When Harry Met Sally). I’m a firm believer that science can answer the empirical but has a helluva hard time describing daily life with its constructivist nature. I don’t believe, however, that Western thought is simply categorized with an external-only focus. Action research bridges the gap between application and research. That’s a Western concept, too.

Experimental research uncovers what causes which outcomes. Bravo Science. Yet speaking of science as a monolithic entity is a human & constructivist error. Which science are we talking about? Is it the sloppy creative process that leads to interesting inventions and discoveries? The analytical process which reduces down complexities into parsimony? The debate that occurs in a peer-mediated journal? What do we do when scientists disagree?

It is a working system and is vastly better than anything out there…in my opinion. But it is a helluva long way from perfect. Scientism, to borrow Penn & Teller’s phrase, is bullshit. Not everything in this world reduces to a scientific explanation. Are there undetectable supernatural entities? Certain questions are off-limits to science with its empirical emphasis. Unfortunately, many of those so-called off-limits questions are of great importance to humanity.

waynej 4 November 2008 - 12:27 pm

Jeff, I find science liberating and it can be if you have an open mind. For example I just read some research on acupressure – which I personally find pretty flakey – however the research included a control group – and it found that acupressure can reduce fatigue. So I’m now thinking how I can incorporate this into what I’m doing.

The other side of the coin are people who are very passionate about what they do. I typically find these people are often blinded by their passion and are unable to consider ideas outside their belief system. The irony is that they often consider themselves quite progressive thinkers but the reality is that it is only in the confines of a limited paradigm.

Barry Elias 15 February 2009 - 9:29 am

October 30, 2008

Dear Louis,

Nice article in today’s Positive news Daily.

During our conversation I discussed the “framing” issue you describe, which I agree is key for promoting positive, growth oriented relationships and activities.

I concur with the social constructionist theory: I believe change starts from within; be the change you want (the internal can create the external).

See you at the next Happiness Meetup session, Wednesday, November 12, 2008.

Barry Elias


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