Blog Post

Sonder: A Near Perfect Description of the Value of Communities

Author: Julia Eisenberg

A colleague I admire recently shared with me the concept of sonder.

Sonder: The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

The phrase – coined in 2012 by John Koenig, whose project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, aims to come up with new words for emotions that currently lack words – stopped me in my tracks.

How satisfying to have someone put into words a concept that has until now only been a wispy idea of a feeling.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how to use qualitative communities. My team and I are working to help our clients effectively use this powerful approach for strategic and empathetic consumer insights. And here was this idea – sonder – a near perfect description of the unique value proposition of communities. This term sums up the reason I believe communities are so fitting right now, a time when consumers’ experiences are rapidly changing. As researchers, we get paid to be curious about the lives of others. Wrapping our heads around the concept of sonder is our life’s work.

It’s probably my background as a researcher that makes sonder ring true, but you don’t have to be a researcher to understand why this idea is so powerful. This feeling of realizing everyone is living a complex and separate life apart from mine is one of the reasons I got into research 15 years ago. I want to know! I want to understand what life is like from other perspectives. I recently read an article about a woman with perfect pitch and synesthesia. To her, everything sounds like musical notes. Her refrigerator hums in a certain key. Friends and acquaintances have a distinct tone and tenor (and sometimes out-of-tune) impact on how she interacts with them. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what life is like for her. She and the interviewer made a little recording of what the city sounded like to her that day and still, still I struggle to understand her unique perspective. I marvel at how different my perception of the world is from hers.

If the concept of sonder, or the way any other person lives and experiences life has ever intrigued you, you already know why a qualitative community is a powerful tool for consumer research. It’s consistent access to these lives, these unique experiences. Not a one-and-done container of disposable insights, but a true community that can grow and shift with time, just as the lives of our consumers grow and shift.

Communities offer as close of a direct portal as I’ve found for genuinely understanding people. Whether current consumers, prospective targets or a group of synesthetes, how can a community help your brand get closer to the complex journeys and lives of others?