An exploration into the depths of language—pushing past grammar, professionalism, action-orientated, and other predictables and into far more enticing fare. The fascinations of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, woven into a frankenquarterly of unreasonable length but most satisfying breadth and depth.
In a business landscape where language is typically painted beige at best, or unintelligible at worst—let this be a rally against apathy.
Why? Because language determines how we influence, persuade, engage, inspire, inform, educate, motivate, simplify, and connect. Because it shapes culture. Because it’s hardwired into the way we think to such an extent that it even influences how we think.
The question isn’t ‘why does language matter?’, but ‘why isn’t language treated like it matters more?’ And, for the particularly shrewd leader like yourself, ‘how might we use language better in the workplace to drive results?’
Oh, the possibilities for what we can achieve are quite thrilling.
A note about the title
If you’re familiar with the novella ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ by Edwin Abbott, you’ll likely recognise the title of this work.
‘Flatland’ tells the story of a sphere attempting to explain the three dimensional world he lives in (Spaceland), to a square who lives on a two dimensional plane (Flatland). Both have a very different view of the world, and quickly realise language is incapable of communicating the concept of space without changing perspective. Because of his worldview, the square has no concept of ‘upward’, to him there is only ‘northward’. Yet once he experiences three dimensions, his entire perspective changes — ‘upward, not northward’ suddenly makes sense.
This idea perfectly sums up this quarterly-turned-biannual—an exploration of language that veers well into the philosophical. We hope it shifts your perspective, even if only to the slightest degree.
I was so naive.
An exploration of language seemed so exciting, so relevant, so often poorly done in a business context that it seemed unthinkable that this quarterly could be about anything else. The decision to write about words seemed as natural as nudity in nature—as thrilling as frolicking beast-suited through life’s wonders. What a joy!
What a fool.
What began as a lighthearted skip through Plato, soon turned into a brutal six month death march through millennia of philosophy, psychology, and neurolinguistics. Fascinating, certainly, but how could I have been so audacious to assume we could do justice to a topic studied, pondered, and debated all the way back to at least 400 BC by far cleverer folk?
Heck, I’m no linguist, though I do love language. To fully disclose: I particularly enjoy its perversion. Oh yes, I’ll happily flout convention in favour of expression any time. Because beyond the technicals, there’s something wonderful—magical, even— about the way well-chosen words can make you feel. The way well-crafted writing catches you up and carries you away, to wherever and whenever the writer wants to take you. Just as listening to a powerful speech can wrench the air from our lungs and draw us towards new ideas and ideals.
Like anything we pay attention to, once we focus—it’s all we see.
Over the past six months I’ve really noticed language. Learning Japanese; listening to the lyricism of hip hop; watching The Arrival; reading Everything is Illuminated, Flatland, The Name of the Wind, and Orwell’s 1984. The unreasonable ferocity I feel whenever a business book fails to honour the printed page by treating language less seriously than the subject matter. The atrocities committed daily in organisations around the world that are labelled as communication.
There’s a pervading carelessness towards language, not in a spelling or grammar sense, but a deeper kind of apathy.
Which is madness, when you think about it. What could be more important to business than language? It’s fundamental to communication, obviously. The ability to share information with each other; the ability to convey and interpret meaning. But beyond that, when used effectively by leaders, it has the power to influence, persuade, engage, inspire, educate, inform, motivate, and connect. These are the bones all businesses are built on.
Language can make us feel things. It can drive us to do things. It can make the most complicated subject matter easy to understand. Or complicate it further, which is often the unfortunate reality. It even influences the way we think, if ever so subtly. By focusing our attention, language improves our performance in certain areas. This relationship with the way we see the world means that language also shapes, and is shaped by, culture.
Linguists, neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, and other thinkers have been trumpeting the importance of language since forever. But it’s only been recent advances in neuroimaging that’s proven the links between language, culture, and thought.
Frankly, these findings are remarkable—my brain still twitches feverish at every recollection. Yet a search for ‘business & language’ still regurgitates a disturbingly inane set of results. Brand language; vision, mission, and values; and the typical language of leadership tropes like professionalism and authority. Yes, but… surely we can do better than that.
What if we round up the revelations from various disciplines and haul them into a business context? Then, oh, how the possibilities shimmer.
Let’s waste no further words on the preliminaries though, there’s so much more to come.
‘C’ is for ‘Change is constant’.
Let’s begin—quite counterintuitively—by pausing. Let’s marvel a moment at what language is, and what it does. It allows us to communicate; to share our thoughts. It allows me to sit here pounding keys enthusiastically to capture ideas in lengthy pieces that, upon reading, transfer to you. Oh yes, I’m almost-literally boxing up the contents of my mind right now and dropping them off in yours. You’re going to need a shower when this is finished.
Getting out of our heads for a beat, let’s cover the very basics.
Languages can be written, spoken, or signed. There’s 5,000–7,000 official-ish languages currently in use, depending on distinctions between dialects. Though it’s estimated that 50–90% of these won’t be around by 2100.
English is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it isn’t the most widely spoken language. Heck, not even close. Based on the number of native speakers, Mandarin claims the win there, with around 15% of the world’s population. Spanish takes second, but well behind, at about 5%. English wheezes across the line shortly after, but with numerous languages hot on her heels.
Languages certainly aren’t only determined by geography or demographics though. The term also includes artificial languages, programming languages, visual languages, codes, and ciphers.
All languages are systems composed of three parts. There are signs, there are meanings, and then there are rules that connect the two. Rules are standardised conventions, governing which signs can be combined, and what meaning they convey. They’re restrictive, but crucial for comprehension.
Structurally, languages are much like Lego: small elements are combined to build grander structures. Depending on whether we’re speaking, signing, or writing, the building blocks can be sounds, gestures, letters, or symbols. These small elements are combined to form slightly bigger structures, like words or phrases, then even larger and more complex structures, like sentences or paragraphs. Elements can be arranged and rearranged in a theoretically infinite number of ways, bound only by the limitations of syntax and grammar.
One of the rules that influences comprehension in a language system is the degree of redundancy. We can strip the vowels from a sentence and still make sense of it (srsly). We can overhear about three words in ten and still get the gist of a conversation. Redundancy gives us a buffer for interference, so that even if we miss part of a message, we still have a chance of making meaning.
The mathematical law for redundancy can even be applied to the wails of whales and the leg-scrapings of ants, with the results suggest they’re not just making random noises, they’re actually using language.
Before we move beyond the technicals, let’s talk about something else that’s solid: your skull. Inside that magnificent bone cavern is a brain. Hopefully. And inside said brain is where language happens. This is where we connect words with meaning, and turn ideas into words and speech.
We process language in multiple regions of the brain, but two areas in particular.
Wernicke’s area is located in the posterior section of the superior temporal gyrus in the dominant cerebral hemisphere. That’s neuro-babble for the back bit of the middle-ish part of whichever side of the brain you’re biased towards. Ironically, given the confusingly-worded location, this is where comprehension happens.
Broca’s area is located in the posterior inferior frontal gyrus of the dominant cerebral hemisphere. I have no idea how to translate that into plain English, but all you really need to know is that this is the area responsible for speech function.
I wasn’t fond of history at school. Much like maths—too many numbers to remember. And while I understand that sighting land would’ve been very exciting after rolling around the ocean for months at a time, expecting to fall off the edge of the earth or end up in the gullet of the kraken at any moment, these days it’s hard to get enthusiastic about the exact date that old mate planted his flag in a particular landmass.
Here’s a fun and relevant historical fact though: spoken languages occurred much, much earlier than written language. While evidence of speech function can be found in the bones of hominins galavanting around Africa 1.5–1.9 million years ago, the earliest example of writing is generally attributed to the Sumerians in a relatively recent 3200 BC.
Even now, we learn to speak before we learn to read or write. Most children can speak a language well enough to communicate by the time they’re 3 years old, although most don’t have anything interesting to say for the next 15–20 years.
Learning to speak is usually a social process, relying on observation and imitation. Learning to read and write typically builds on the ability to speak. For around 14% of the population, however, spoken language remains their only form of communication. There are still languages which are only spoken, with no written equivalent.
Why on earth does this matter? Well, our predilection towards speech is an indication that although language includes both spoken and written systems, we should think of the two as very different things.
This notion is less obvious to English speakers because our language is phonemic—our written and spoken systems are quite similar. For example, our word for ‘wombat’ begins with a ‘w’ that corresponds to the sound ‘wuh’. Each written letter represents a sound, and these combine to create the word for this wonderful creature.
This isn’t the same in other languages. A Chinese character isn’t made up of individual symbols that represent individual sounds like English does. Their written language, Kanji, uses logograms. A single character represents an entire word or concept. The difference between written and spoken Chinese is evident when you consider that Kanji is also used in Japan. While Japanese and Chinese speakers can read the same written communication, they certainly can’t have a spoken conversation in their native tongues and hope to understand each other.
The spoken word for ‘4’ sounds very different in French and English, yet the numeral is written exactly the same way in both languages. An English and French speaker can share complex mathematical ideas through writing, but couldn’t exchange even the most basic pleasantries.
The difference between speech and writing isn’t only in the way the systems represent words or concepts though. Perhaps the most important differences are the way the delivery mode makes us use language.
Spoken language is dynamic, and typically spat out in short 7–10 word bursts. Delivery is immediate, rather than reflective—which makes it inevitable that we’ll regularly regret speaking before thinking. Speech is typically loose; casual; full of repetitions, incomplete sentences, self-corrections, and interruptions.
While we separate written words from each other with spaces for clarity, few folk enunciate casual speech as clearly. We slur ‘did you eat?’ together into a very different-sounding ‘jueet?’ It makes sense to do this for speed and fluidity, but it means that what comes out of our mouths could often be written as a completely different language. Speshly inastraya.†
Spoken language allows us to connect on a more personal level, and convey meaning more accurately than written language. Yes, while I’m banging away at my keyboard, lonely and yearning for your love, Jen’s out chatting with you all in person, laughing gaily over cat clips, lattes, or espresso martinis.
I get it though—it’s nothing personal. It’s simply that spoken language tends to be our preferred means of communicating and connecting. Speech naturally allows more nuance through non-verbals. Gestures, intonation, inflection, volume, pitch, pauses, movement, visual cues, timing, and timbre—these all convey additional context, meaning, and emotion. They often communicate more information than the words alone.
Because speaking generally involves at least one other person (unless you’re fond of a sneaky soliloquy or monologue), feedback from the listener(s) continuously influences what the speaker says next.
Speaking also relies heavily on unspoken context and shared knowledge. Where and when we have a conversation makes a difference. We can leave things unsaid, or imply things indirectly. We can ensure comprehension through clarifications.
Finally, the nature of speech means that words disappear once spoken. This means that unless they’re documented through video or audio recording, speech is far less permanent than writing. We’re busy and distracted; our memory prone to mistakes—making it less likely we’ll remember spoken content accurately in the long term.
† In proper written English: ‘especially in Australia’.
Since our beginnings, stories, songs, and rituals have been passed on orally to preserve them. Yet even with higher literacy rates today, we remain enchanted by spoken traditions like speeches, theatre, news, and storytelling.
While formal speeches and spoken conversations seem similar—the same words being said out loud—speeches actually share more similarities with written language.†
Like writing, speeches tend to be delivered to larger and more diverse audiences. This means that unlike conversations, they need to establish context and common ground.
Speeches often involve more important or sensitive messages, so they require more precision and clarity than a casual chat. Words once spoken can’t be retracted (unfortunately). So while we can apologise, qualify, or explain, it’s better to get them right when they first leave our mouth.
Getting it right means preparation. The best speeches aren’t read word for word, they’re written specifically to be spoken, then rehearsed to be delivered word-perfect. Reading a speech is the bastard of both written and spoken forms—guaranteeing an insipid or awkward experience for the audience.
Similarly, written language is typically dense, and doesn’t translate well when read out loud. Effective formal speeches balance the concise and considered language used in writing, with the engaging and nuanced delivery of spoken language.
Because the purpose is often to motivate or inspire, formal speeches tend to use repetition, rhetoric, and loaded language to evoke emotions and illicit the desired response. There’s numerous other techniques that make an accomplished speech, but for our purposes we’re already deep enough in the detail.
† Except in Arabic. Their formal and informal spoken styles vary to such an extend, they sound like completely different languages.
Compared to speech, written language is a more considered, contemplative, and deliberative mode of communication. It has the potential to be more concise and precise, but also more sophisticated, complex, intricate, and lengthy.
The writer (in this case: me) can write and rewrite, and this particular author most certainly does. The reader (in this case: you), has the option to read quickly or slowly, stop to think, or re-read to clarify—which you most certainly will need to. In this way, the pace is controlled by both the writer and the reader. Together, we dance to the same tune but a different beat.
Because I’m here and you’re there, sadly separated by time and space, context also becomes important. We need context to ensure meaning is conveyed to an audience that may not share the same background information and knowledge. This is especially important given that written communication can span centuries.
Unlike speaking, feedback in writing is a delayed process. We can’t seek or provide immediate clarification, nor ensure everyone reading understands exactly what we mean. This means written language needs to be more clear and less ambiguous to ensure our message is understood.
Written language typically feels more formal than spoken language. This is partially because it’s bound by more rules and conventions than speech. Where speaking has more nuanced delivery, writing relies on punctuation, hierarchy, structure, and visual elements to ensure comprehension and convey meaning. There’s no literal spoken equivalents of the structure in written language. I’m all for breaking rules, however this standardisation has allowed us to understand writing right back to Chaucer (although not quite as far as Beowulf).
There’s also an enduring association of writing with prestige. In previous centuries, when literacy was lower, written language was associated with the upper class, literature, government, and educational institutions. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, writing and speaking were actually much closer. Because the educated classes had control over literature, they tended to write like they spoke—formally. The working class where far less literate, which meant they had no influence on the tone of written language.
These days though, things are different. There’s a far higher literacy rate than a century ago. This shift, along with new forms of messaging, brings a trend towards informality in writing.
Yes, few folk prefer reading or writing in overly formal language, yet organisations continue to haul the formal written prose from centuries past. It’s an archaic hangover that stifles the writing style. We often hear it justified as professional. We should just call it irrelevant. We’re no longer writing for the academics and upper class in most occasions—we’re writing for the people. And if we want to connect, our writing should pay homage to the glorious colloquialisms and informalities that abound in typical spoken language.
Speaking of which…
Yes, texting. A written language system initially responsible for the ire of an entire older generation… though the necessity of communicating with children and grandchildren soon had them frog-punching punctuation as deftly as the next Gen Y.
What fascinates here, is that despite the written medium, texting is actually much closer to spoken language than writing.
Texting emerged in parallel with new technology, and the new mediums of communication it enabled: text messaging, SMS, IM, and chat platforms like WhatsApp and Messenger. Technology increased the speed a message could be produced and delivered, allowing us to communicate almost as quickly as our thoughts.
We’re no longer writing letters for delivery a week later, friends. We’re in the same moment, with shared context, gaining immediate feedback. And if you’re thinking that sounds a lot like spoken language—you’re bang on there.
Linguist John McWhorter describes texting as ‘fingered speech’. It certainly flairs with all the delicious looseness of spoken language. A flagrant disregard for conventions like punctuation or capitalisation. Fraught with abbreviations, aberrations, and other grammatical abominations.
However, while even our grandparents eventually adapted, most organisations are still stuck in a pre-text bubble. They exist in the glory days of written language, when spelling was sacrosanct and grammar had not yet been forsaken. And while I admit that a small part of me dies with every uncapitalised sentence and misplaced punctuation, there’s something undeniably odd and unnatural about the perfectly formed language used in automated text messages from banks and telcos. The style jars with the medium. It seems cold and impersonal compared to the homely warmth evoked by a missing full stop.
I’m not advocating for complete grammatical anarchy, but the fact is that people have been complaining about so-called sloppy language all the way back to Plato. Organisations need to keep pace—embracing new language systems, like texting, and accepting that the way we use language is different across each mode. The risk of clinging to outdated values is communication that fails to connect.
Visual languages are written, but don’t use letters or words in a typical sense.
We can trace the origins of visual languages right back to prehistoric cave paintings. While some are considered art, others are thought to be communication—making them the earliest evidence of written language.
These languages were spread across centuries and continents, evident in ancient Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs, Chinese Kanji, and various indigenous cultures including Australian and America. In some non-literate cultures in Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, pictographs still remain the primary from of written communication.
Today, visual language systems are everywhere we look: from signage and packaging, to the internet and mobile devices. We live in a fast-paced and ever-shrinking world—visual languages convey messages and ideas instantly, simply, clearly, and unambiguously. They transcend geographic and literacy barriers.
Many systems have become standardised, becoming truly universal languages. Some concepts have become so linked to certain symbols, that they can communicate meaning without using words. The christian cross; the swastika; the medical symbol; the skull and crossbones—these things have been imbued with centuries of ideology and emotion.
In addition to effectively crossing language barriers, the strength of visual languages is also in the way our brain treats images compared to text.
Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that sure is a lot of words to be saved from slogging through. We process images in parallel, at shocking speeds. It takes us a mere 150 milliseconds to process an image, and only an additional 100 milliseconds to assign meaning to it. In the blink of an eye, we’ve not only captured information, but understood it too.
In comparison, our eyes crawl text at a pitiful rate—tediously scuttling over individual characters, before laboriously picking them up and grouping them together in comprehensible sentences and paragraphs. The result of these differences is that we can process images around 60,000 times faster than text.
Pictography is the broad term that describes any form of writing that uses pictures instead of words. Within pictography there are various categories, though the boundaries frequently blur between. Emojis are a combination of pictogram and ideogram. Icons can also be a combination of both.
Let’s look at each of these categories in more detail.
Logograms are abstract symbols that stand for a word or phrase. They don’t literally represent objects or concepts in the same way that pictograms or ideograms do. Nor does each symbol represent an individual sound like typical written languages.
We mentioned Kanji a few paragraphs previously. It’s a language composed of 47,035 logograms (though only 4,000–5,000 are used by the average person), used by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean speakers for written applications.
Pictograms (or pictographs) are symbols that literally depict objects. Airport wayfinding, road signage, safety and hazard signage, recycling and waste symbols, and clothing care instructions. The literal nature of pictographs means we’re likely to understand them regardless of whether or not we’ve seen them before, and no matter what language we speak.
Ideograms are symbols that communicate ideas or concepts. They can resemble an object, or use abstract shapes or colour. We understand that an object inside a red circle with a line through means that whatever the object is, it isn’t allowed. We know that something inside a yellow triangle means that we should be cautious of it. When we see a lightbulb symbol, depending on the context it’s used in, we generally interpret it as representing ideas.
When you regularly receive emails littered with emoji from your 85 year old grandmother, you know a language is legit.†
Essentially, emojis are just pictograms, not dissimilar from kanji, hieroglyphs, or bison cavorting across prehistoric cave walls. However, the rapid and recent evolution of this language makes it worthy of special attention.
Long before our devices had the graphical power to display the Pile of Poop and other emoji, we were punching various combinations of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks to create crude pictures and faces to convey emotion. These emoticon were the precursor to the emoji we use today.
Emoji first appeared on Japanese mobile phones back in the late 1990’s. However, it was only after inclusion on Apple’s iPhone in 2011, ironically intended to appeal to the Japanese market, that emoji went global.
Today, emoji is not only integrated into our native languages, but it’s becoming a legitimate language system in its own right. Linguistic professor Vyv Evans describes it as Britain’s fastest-growing language, and it’s no surprise. Emoji pairs perfectly with technology, allowing for fast-paced communication that parallels instant messaging and character constraints on platforms like Twitter.
It also conveys nuances of emotion, much like non-verbals in speech. A recent survey by Talk Talk found that 72% of 18–25-year-olds find it easier to express their feelings in emoji rather than written words.
Like ‘lol’, they’ve also become markers of empathy. We use them in place of spoken responses like ‘right’, or non-verbals like nodding.
There’s no arguing the pervasiveness of emoji in modern communication, but the real validation came from an unlikely source. In an unexpected move for a publication steeped in tradition, Oxford Dictionaries named 😂 (Face With Tears of Joy) their Word of the Year for 2015.
President Caspar Grathwohl explained the decision wonderfully: ‘traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps—it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully’.
In early 2017, researchers at the University of Michigan confirmed our continued infatuation with Face With Tears of Joy. Out of 427 million messages sent using the Kika Emoji Keyboard, Face With Tears of Joy was the most popular emoji.
However, while our love for laughing until we cry is apparently almost universal, a survey by HighSpeedInternet.com discovered some interesting cultural insights about each countries second favourite emoji.
Our French amis proved fond of the ❤️ (Heart), which makes sense for a country with a capital dubbed the City of Love. Canada loves the heart too, although that’s probably thanks to the French-Canadian side. South Africa are also lovers, but more of the Tinder-variety, with a lusting for 😘 (Face Blowing a Kiss). Ireland has an inexplicable attachment to the 💩 (Pile of Poop). And in Australia, we’re 😜 (Winking Face With Stuck Out Tongue). Yep, mad as cut snakes.
As a somewhat disturbing sidebar, while Oxford was praising Face With Tears of Joy, the American Dialect Society declared 🍆 (Eggplant) their Most Notable Emoji of 2015. Unequivocal proof that as well as enjoying love and laughter, we’re all deeply depraved.
Speaking of eggplants… like hand signs or any language, emojis are just as prone to misinterpretation. Their inherent ambiguity allows for flexible usage, but also meaning that varies between age groups, cultures, and nationalities. Oh yes, the innocuous 🍆 is apparently not considered a vegetarian-friendly menu option by 18–25-year-olds. And expressing your desire for a juicy 🍑 may not communicate exactly what you’d intended either. 🤔
As emoji evolves, standardisation continues to be a challenge.
The Unicode Consortium currently drives the addition of new emoji, which software developers decide how to interpret visually. This leads to aesthetic differences and incompatibilities across the many operating systems and platforms.
Theres also the evolution of existing emoji. We’ve seen an explosion of welcome variations to promote race, gender, and family unit diversity, but there’s other less obvious changes too.
When Apple rolled out iOS 10, they continued to fight a losing battle to stop the objectification of the peach. More controversially though, they replaced the revolver with a water pistol, taking a clear stance on the gun debate. It raises interesting questions around censorship, and whether removing a word or symbol can have a positive impact on the way people talk about a topic.
Perhaps it’s timely though, considering that precedents have been set that make emoji, like 😶🔫 (Face + Gun), admissible in court.
Right now though, the biggest barrier to emoji becoming a fully developed language system is a lack of grammar structure. Casting our mind right back to the very first section where we identified all languages as systems of three parts: emoji currently has signs and meanings, but very few rules to connect two.
† Heck, there’s even been a movie made about emoji, Sadly, it fell a little flat, with IndieWire giving it possibly the best-worst critique I’ve seen in quite some time: ‘The Emoji Movie is almost as bad and brutally depressing as everything else in 2017.’ 😢
For thoroughness, we’ve included sign language, though it’s not something most of us need to be aware of on a daily basis. That said—the subtleties fascinate.
Sign language uses our fingers, hands, arms, body, and face, to communicate. In a way, it’s a type of visual language, though instead of an implement like a pen or computer, we use space as the canvas and our body as the implement.
Sign languages don’t depend on spoken language—they aren’t just speech or writing expressed in signs. They’re every bit as rich and complex as any spoken language, showing the same fundamental properties that exist in all language systems. Indeed, people signing exhibit very similar brain activity to people speaking.
Technically, signs are usually arbitrary and don’t often have a visual relationship to the thing they’re referring to, just as most spoken language isn’t onomatopoeic.
Like spoken and written languages, signing organises small units into larger meaningful units. Grammar is achieved by using space, though word-order typology varies between languages, typically subject-object-verb or subject-verb-object. This has no relationship to the spoken language in the region. The sign language used in America actually uses a syntax much closer to spoken Japanese than English.
Meaning can be conveyed by using body, face, arms and hands, and space simultaneously. This allows signing to communicate meaning more effectively than spoken languages in many cases.
With the exception of a highly simplified pidgin language, International Sign, there isn’t a single global sign language. Some countries have more than one sign language. And two regions with the same spoken language can use completely different sign languages, like the United Kingdom and The United States of America.
Unlike sign languages, manual languages visually represent a written language by using our body.
Fingerspelling (dactylology) uses fingers and hands to represent letters and numbers. It’s mainly used in deaf education or in conjunction with sign language, however it was also used by technicality-exploiting monks to avoid breaking their vow of silence.
We also use hand signs and gestures as a substitute for words in various situations.
Diving uses hand signs to indicate intentions unable to be spoken for obvious reasons. Construction sites use them to communicate in a noisey environment. However, using them to communicate in everyday situations in other cultures can come with entirely unintended consequences.
In Australia, we give the thumbs-up as a positive sign of approval, but in Latin America, West Africa, Greece, Sardinia, Russia, and the Middle East it’s considered quite rude. Beckoning someone to follow using your finger is punishable by finger-breaking in the Philippines. Fingers crossed means the same thing as the middle finger up in Vietnam. An a-okay sign is actually an a-hole sign in Greece, Turkey, Brazil, and the Middle East. The peace sign can start a fight in England. But throw the satanic salute at a Buddhist monk and they’ll smile at your benevolent gesture to dispel evil.
Yes, it’s all very confusing. Fortunately, flicking the bird (middle finger) is offensive in any culture, so you’re still well-covered there.
As sure as tide and taxes, time marches on. And just as surely—language evolves.
Character restrictions on platforms like Twitter have perpetuated an explosion of acronyms, initialisms, and symbols. We’ve already touched on how we’re creating new language systems like emoji, and adapting the way we use language to fit new mediums like texting. And we’ve lol’ed at the ridiculousness of organisations refusing to adapt.
But what about the evolution of an existing language? Not the way it’s used or delivered, but the way a language changes over time.
Take seven books, one from each century from the 1400’s through to today, and we see how much English has evolved. Heck, even reading a book published in the early 1900’s can take some effort. But if you’re still unconvinced about how fast our language is changing, just have a conversation about pop culture with someone a decade younger.
We’re continually adding new words, and changing the pronunciation and meaning of existing words.
Here’s a soapbox I’ve been looking for an opportunity to climb onto: there’s no shortage of excellent superlatives in the English language, yet for some inexplicable reason we’ve flogged the word ‘awesome’ to a point where it no longer means ‘extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe’. No, by referring to our breakfast as awesome, we’ve made the word really quite mundane.†
However, we’ve also conjured moderately awesome new words to replace awesome, like ‘adorkable’, which means exactly what you’d assume. Meanwhile, other words like ‘lol’ have rapidly transcended literal meaning and become pragmatic particles or markers of empathy—words used to fill gaps in conversation.
With the evolution of language comes the inevitable question: when does a word become real? Although dictionaries are now keeping pace with monthly updates, perhaps it’s less about acknowledgement from an official body, and more a matter of comprehension.
Surely a word becomes real the moment it has a shared meaning, even if it’s only understood by a very niche group. The word ‘onomastics’ is most certainly real, but unless you’re a linguist you’re unlikely to have ever used it. The word ‘lol’ on the other hand, seems far less real, but is far more widely used. Which word is more real?
† Let’s make a pact to return ‘awesome’ to it’s former awesomeness. ‘Magnificent’, ‘wondrous’, or even plain old ‘great’—let’s diversify our adjectives to preserve the awe-inspiringness.
Oh, the absurdities we could share about the Language of Business. Unlike any other dialect, this stilted corporate prose will one day baffle linguists with it’s archaic form. The bastard of formal speech and writing from the turn of the 20th century, it exists ostensibly to bewilder.
We’ve touched on the way turn of the century formalities have hungover into modern day business language just a couple of sections previously, and in Unprofessional, several quarterlies prior. But let’s go deeper into some of the other factors that influence the language used in our workplaces, and their impact on leadership, people, culture, and engagement.
Most companies have brand language guidelines, preached with varying degrees of fervour. They direct word choice and tone; vocabulary and attitude. They’re often formulated by branding and advertising agencies almost exclusively to influence the external market by defining and differentiating the company from all the others.
If we’ve been meeting here at One Slash Four for a while, you’ll know how we feel about style guides used internally. Oh yes, we’re really not fans. Because, while we champion a consistent and unified internal/external brand, too often these guides become The Rules. Applied over and over inflexibly as a one-size-fits-all approach to internal communication. And by saying things in exactly the same way, day in and day out, they inevitably fade into a background hum. The inevitability of habituation.
Language doesn’t come from a brand or culture book, no matter how hard or how often corporate comms bludgeon folk with it. No, language comes from the leaders; it comes from the people. It’s in the conversations and mantras used daily that bleed into the language with customers and clients. It can’t be fully controlled by a brand agency or single department—it lives and evolves throughout the entire organisation.
If you’ve ever tried to push language or communication past predictable, chances are you’ve met with one these reasons why it can’t be done:
Legal: we have to say it like this
Complexity: it’s too complicated or technical to explain simply
Cost: we don’t have time or budget to say it better
Tradition: this is how we’ve always said it
Fear: we can’t risk saying it like that
To put it bluntly, these are all terrible excuses for bland language and mediocre communication. Let’s look at each in a little more detail.
Why does legal language need to have the all personality sucked right out?
We’re lucky to have an wonderfully unorthodox lawyer as part of our team. He confirmed our suspicion that nowhere in any legal manual he’s ever seen does it specify the need for over-bloated, large-worded, jargon-heavy, impersonal language.
The assumption that The Law demands long-winded pomp might simply be a leftover from a time when scriveners were paid by the word. Needless to say, wit money at stake—much verbiage and verbosity ensued.
Many organisations have a warm and friendly tone… until it’s time for a contract or policy. Then, the vibe turns frigid. It doesn’t need to be this way, though. The challenge for clever leaders and their legal teams is translating legislation, regulation, and policy into clear and concise language that feels coherent with the organisation.
Let’s push past word count and focus on comprehension and engagement. There’s such an opportunity to create better, more human experiences—simply by changing the legal language.
Let’s begin by clarifying that complexity isn’t the real issue. The world is complex; humans are complex; life is complex; work is complex. We deal with inherent complexity daily, and it can be remarkably beneficial. It’s naive to think we can—or should—solve complexity just by eliminating details. That’s just dumbing things down; stripping the function that makes it useful.
The problem is actually confusion.
To draw on a previous quarterly on complexity: consider the Swiss Army knife. It’s highly complex. There’s up to a hundred tools compressed into something that fits in your pocket—but all that complexity is hidden behind a simple interface. It’s the same for iPhones, navigating the Metro, and Google searches. We constantly underestimate the complexity of things when they’re well designed, because the successful resolution of complexity renders itself invisible.
So, let’s forget about complexity and address confusion instead. Even the most complicated technical information can be made easy to understand. Make things easy to understand, and they’ll seem simple. And when things seem simple, they become far more engaging too.
Fortunately, simplicity is actually—ironically—quite simple.
We begin by understanding the content explicitly. What hope do we have of simplifying a topic we don’t completely understand ourselves. This is when big words, jargon, and ambiguity creep into our language. We hide behind complexity, hoping others will be too confused to realise we have absolutely no idea either.
Once we’re intimate with the content, it’s time to get out of our heads for a while. Let’s establish the context by asking ourselves questions. Who’s it for? What purpose does it serve? What problem does it solve? How will it be experienced? What are the assumptions and expectations? What technical terms will be understood, and what jargon has the potential to confuse? What language is appropriate?
Once we have context, we can sift the content for relevance. What details really matter? Let’s remove the unnecessary, but also add what’s needed. A sure side effect of over-simplification is—perversely—confusion. Simplifying the language isn’t necessarily about reducing the word count—it’s about including exactly what’s required to make the content easily understood.
Now, let’s look at the content through a human lens. People don’t change when they arrive at work in the morning then revert when they leave. Our language and communication preferences stay the same. Let’s use language for humans, not for resources. Communicate for people, not for employees.
Busy and overwhelmed have become our new normal. Simplicity means easing our hefty cognitive load, not adding to an already precarious pile. We can do this by making the the language familiar and easy to understand. How can we say it most simply? Wherever possible, turning words into visual also reduces the time and effort needed to process content.
Finally, we need to establish a ruthless order. Hierarchy helps our mind make sense of things, and increases comprehension as a result. The way we structure language is as important to simplicity as the words themselves.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this, mates—saying it better is almost certainly going to require more effort, more time, and possibly more money. Unfortunately, that’s unavoidable. But what’s the point in saying anything if nobody’s listening? Investing extra makes all the difference in earning attention and making a difference. The cost of mediocrity is undeniably higher.
Language is changing, and the the business landscape is evolving too. Staying ahead today means staying relevant tomorrow. We must evolve—continuously. We’re no longer in an age when written language is the sole domain of the academic and upper classes—let’s shed the shackles of tradition. Let’s allow our language to shift, to better connect with and inspire the new generations driving our organisations forwards.
In terms of challenges, fear is one of the biggest hurdles we see at a leadership level. Fear of doing something different. Fear of putting ourselves out there. Fear of failure. Fear of causing offence. Fear of what people might say. Fear of responsibility. Fear that others will do the wrong thing. Fear of change. Fear of becoming irrelevant. Whatever it’s masked as—it often comes back to fear.
Fear births mediocrity and unnecessary layers of confusion and complication. We see it when leaders hide behind vague, stilted corporate language; ass-covering, justification, and death by committee. Systems at the expense of common sense. Endless policies and procedures written in mind-numbingly dry and indecipherable prose.
This confusion multiplies as we move through levels, as each function attempts to shield themselves from risk and accountability, or cover a lack of understanding. It’s no wonder that by the time we reach the intended recipients, we’re left with bloated processes and strategies, with all the human sucked right out of the language. This isn’t useful complexity, it doesn’t add function or purpose—it’s just confusion. And when people are confused, they become disinterested and disengaged.
We get that this is more challenging in practice than theory. None of the fears mentioned are unreasonable, and a culture that gives permission to do things differently—perhaps even fail gloriously—comes from the top. But the truly remarkable leaders we’ve worked with, are the ones who move past fear. They’re willing to do what it takes to make a difference. They bring everything back to what really matters—people.
Don’t deliberate solecisms just make you cringe? Stop it! Ok then, here’s a very serious fact: roughly 70% of mistakes in the workplace are the result of poor communication.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. Communication is the way we share important information, and considering language is the foundation of communication, plenty of mistakes could be avoided simply by getting our language right.
Yes, language is the way we educate, influence, persuade, inspire, and motivate. It’s the way we change behaviours, and guide people through the process of transformation. It plays a pivotal role in shaping experience. And it’s absolutely essential to effective leadership.
As leaders, our language isn’t limited to painstakingly prepared internal communications, meetings, and presentations, though. We’re judged on every single interaction—the daily conversations and banter, heck, even when we say nothing it can be interpreted as something.
Let’s make one final swerve into the practical before we plunge into the philosophical. Let’s push past the predictables though, like ‘use good grammar’ and ‘be more clear’. Important considerations, certainly, but there’s more to effective language than punctuation snobbery and similar obviousness.
Alright then, let’s just get this one out of the way. To wheel out a familiar trope: grammar is the difference between ‘let’s eat, grandma’ and ‘let’s eat grandma’. Yes, grammar matters. Especially if you’re grandma.
Oh, how it grates with such unreasonable ferocity—a thousand fingers drawn down a chalkboard in a symphony of discord when grammar is flagrantly disregarded. Every application has spell check, and apps and plug-ins like Grammarly are easily installed—there’s simply no excuse for getting the basics wrong.†
Small words and short sentences—we’re busy, so let’s get straight to the point. Let’s distill things down, simplify the message, and communicate it in as few words as possible. Summary: succinct; the exact opposite of this quarterly.
Context helps us establish intent, meaning, relevance, and value.
We need to establish why. Not why it’s import to us, but why it’s important to our audience. Always why first, followed by who, what, when, and how.
Words can easily be interpreted in different ways, by different people, in different situations. Setting context reduces the ambiguity around our intentions. Once we’ve established context, framing helps influence how our words are interpreted.
How much difference does framing really make? Well, researchers took Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction (slash marketing stunt, whichever way you classify that triumphant failure of clothing to accomplish its sole purpose) and used it to study the impact of framing on how an event is interpreted.
Two groups were shown footage of Nipplegate. This was accompanied by almost exactly the same written description of the event, with only a small difference in the final sentence. The first version ended with, ‘…the costume ripped’. The second variation finished with, ‘…ripped the costume’.
This subtle difference in language was enough to dramatically influence how people interpreted the event. The majority of the first group described the incident as an accident, while the bulk of the second group blamed Justin Timberlake.
There’s enough noise in the world and workplace without us adding to it. If it doesn’t matter—why are we sharing it? Let’s consider what’s really necessary.
This is the secret to simplifying complexity. How much can we strip it back, yet keep it useful. Include too much—we risk confusion or losing attention. Include too little detail, or incorporate irrelevant information—it won’t be useful. We need to strike the perfect balance.
Confusion is our absolute arch-enemy, friends. We need clear and unambiguous language when comprehension matters most.
We’re certainly not advocating dumbing it down. Oversimplifying the intellectual content robs it of the detail that makes it useful. We simply need to reduce the number of possible interpretations.
First, let’s cull the jargon when communication extends beyond a niche audience. Jargon seeps so insidious into our language, clouding the message, and perpetrating confusion.
Eliminating ambiguity also means avoiding words with multiple meanings. Homonyms, homographs, homophones, and syntactic ambiguity all add unnecessary confusion. I’m confused just using them to the previous sentence, so let’s look at a couple of examples.
‘You have a green light’ is completely ambiguous without context. ‘Tim saw the man with a telescope’ could refer to Tim observing a man who had a telescope, or Tim looking through a telescope and seeing a man. Both are correct interpretations, but describe a very different scenario.
We also need to stay wary of implicature in our language. This is meaning that’s suggested, rather than explicitly expressed. It relies on the listener interpreting our intent—based on context, shared knowledge, our relationship, and even the time and place our conversation occurs.
We use implicatures surprisingly often in social situations. What we leave unsaid can be an intentional or subconscious choice. It can communicate an entirely different message from the actual words we use.
If someone asks us if we can reach the salt, we know they aren’t asking if our arms are literally long enough—they’re politely asking us to pass it to them. They know that we know what they mean. Why is socialising so unnecessarily complicated?
We generally use indirect language to avoid expressing boldness or dominance. It’s not really coffee or tea we’re offering when we invite someone inside at the end of a triumphant first date. Just like, ‘if you could pass the mustard, that would be amazing’, doesn’t indicate the latitude of our gratitude for condiments.
Finally, my favourite—irony. Oh, the scathing humour we can elicit when our words mean one thing, but the subtext is exactly the opposite. Used discerningly and cunningly, irony can be extremely effective. Done poorly, it can be downright confusing.
It’s an easy trap to fall into—sweeping, cliché-heavy proclamations like, ‘let’s focus on the key priorities’ or, ‘our customers come first’. But… what do those things really mean?
Using generic language assumes everyone shares the same definitions of words like ‘vision’, ‘loyalty’, ‘accountability’, ‘culture’, collaboration’, ‘alignment’, and ‘results’. But business terms and buzzwords don’t make for instructive or compelling language.
Consistency is important, but only when we’re consistent about the right things. Vision, mission, purpose, and values—these are the things that should be consistently reflected in our language.
A constrictive style guide, one that throttles all variation in the name of consistency, leads to habituation. Once we’re habituated, it’s farewell attention—which is actually a success of sorts, because you can bet all further communication will be consistently ignored.
Novelty, however, makes us curious, and curiosity seizes our attention. Surprise and delight works wonderfully to highlight important messages, and there’s plenty that can be done with language to set it apart.
Consistency; consistency; consistency; grenade.
Let’s not fixate on eloquence or professionalism—let’s worry about being real. When it comes to our leaders, we respect real; we respond to real.
This means pushing beyond generic corporate language and a faux-professional tone, and letting our personality manifest through the language we use. Nothing is as unsettling or obvious as language that doesn’t ring true.
Appropriate communication strikes a balance between a formal and casual tone. For several centuries, formal was our default as leaders, but our appetite for formality is very different now.
Our level of formality should be determined by our context, our brand, our culture, and our audience—not outdated notions of professionalism. This varies between organisations, cultures, nationalities, and industries.
In Australia, often the worse we speak, the more we’re liked. The better we speak, the less we’re trusted. Our national culture has a bent towards the underdog and the everyman; a distrust of the upper class, corporate fat cats, and politicians.
Regardless of what’s appropriate, our tone indicates of the type of relationship we want with our people. Are we out on the front line, having honest and colloquialism-filled chats? Or are we lording over everyone from the corner suite with clipped prose and formal missives?
Our choice of personal pronouns also shapes and defines our relationships with others.
‘We’ and ‘us’ is inclusive, while ‘you’ and ‘I’ is exclusive. Is it me and you, or us together? A simple change of pronoun brings us together, or sets us apart.
‘You’ points the finger and makes accusations, even when it isn’t intended. ‘We’ positions us in the same situation, facing challenges together. ‘You’ can feel presumptuous, preachy, and condescending. ‘We’ conveys empathy, understanding, and respect.
It’s no accident which particular pronoun is used most frequently in this quarterly.
It’s no revelation that people speaking different languages can’t communicate with each other. But this doesn’t only apply to speakers of different nationalities.
A neurosurgeon and a builder each have their own language. A developer at Atlassian speaks a different language to an executive at Nestlé. A safety leader uses a slightly different language to someone working on the factory floor. And while there’s certainly commonalities, language can easily become a barrier to comprehension and collaboration.
It’s easier to understand language we use regularly and feels familiar.
The challenge for leaders is that language differs greatly between individuals and groups. It varies with age, cultural background, socio-economic background, role and profession, and literacy level, among other factors.
This is where empathy helps. Let’s look beyond our own preferences, and use language that appeals to the people we want to connect with.
Beyond comprehension, familiar language also fosters inclusion. Unfamiliar language emphasises our differences, rather than our similarities. So, if we’re working towards a sense of community, commonality, and shared purpose—we should be building a common language that feels familiar to everyone.
Here’s a truth: anyone can make exciting subject matter thrilling, but the real kicks come from turning the most mind-numbing and complicated content into simple and captivating fare.
There’s no reason anything needs to be boring. Not legal documents; not policy manuals; not corporate strategy—it can all be made fascinating. It simply comes down to how much effort we’re willing to invest.
Questions can be far more powerful and engaging than statements. They pique our curiosity, and curiosity grabs our attention. Our irrepressible need to close the curiosity gap—the gap between what we know and what we want to know—is a powerful motivation for learning.
People need to believe it to buy it. And to be believable, we need to exhibit confidence and credibility combined.
Oh yes, we can only bluff our way so far with bravado, then we need to actually back it up. The perception of confidence and credibility comes from the words we use, and how we deliver them, particularly through paralanguage and non-verbals (detailed further in ‘Rhythm, speed, pitch, tone, and emphasis’ and ‘Non-verbals’).
What do we want people to do? The verbs we use and the pace we set—our language can move people to act or respond.
This is influenced by whether we’re we using a passive or active voice.
A passive voice is fine for scientific reports where our language needs to remain impartial, but it makes for a truly mind-numbing read.
An active voice is tighter, less wordy, and generally much easier to understand. This makes it more memorable, and more likely to translate into action.
How do we know what voice we’re using? The simple rule is to ensure our subject is doing the action, not the action being done to the subject. ‘The cat bit her owner’ versus ‘the owner was bitten by the cat’. In this case, there’s greater impact when we make the feline matter.
No-one likes a pessimist. Dammit, I don’t even like myself for making that negative comment. Blame and criticism only elicits defensiveness, so let’s use language to flip and phrase a negative message in a positive way. We all love an optimist.
Abstract language is intangible and vague. It references big ideas, concepts, themes, and categories. But because it lacks tangibility, it also tends to lack emotional impact.
Conversely, concrete language evokes a visceral visual image. It uses specific words to paint a compelling picture rich in detail. ‘Imagine’ is a particularly powerful word because it encourages us to visualise the outcome ourselves. Our brain fills in the blanks.
Effective language dances between the two, yet business language—strategy in particular—tends to wallow in the abstract. If we want to bring it to life, we need swing our language into the concrete.
People may struggle to remember our words, but they rarely forget how we make them feel.
The truth is, we’re emotional creatures, far less swayed by fact than feels. Facts stimulate the logic and language-processing areas of our brain, while metaphors and stories evoke an emotional response. Our emotions compel us to act, which is why the language of advertising rarely goes for our minds, it tugs at our heart, and it hits in our guts.
What does this mean for us? Grab their attention, make them feel something, then reinforce it all with reason.
Communication in the workplace swings the pendulum constantly from rhetorical to relational language. We need argumentation to reach the best solutions, pitch our ideas, and influence others. But we also need to nurture relationships to work together effectively.
Every interaction isn’t a business transaction. Relational language has the power to forge genuine connections, build trust and credibility, and foster collaboration.
Rhetorical language is all about influence, persuasion, argumentation, and getting others to bend to our point of view. The origins can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, but the fundamentals still hold true.
Rhetoric incorporates three distinct styles. Agility (or Logos) employs logic. Authenticity (or Ethos) appeals to hopes and dreams, ideals, morals, values, and guiding beliefs of a community or culture. Empathy (or Pathos) is about care, and appeals primarily to our emotions.
With an average of six metaphors a minute pouring from our mouths, we certainly exhibit a fondness for figures of speech.
It’s no surprise. Metaphors help us communicate an idea by likening it to another familiar idea. They stimulate areas of our brain associated with our senses, rather than just the language-processing regions. They can convey more meaning than literal language alone.
Beyond metaphors lie a swath of other figures of speech to exploit. Analogies; similies; cliches; proverbs; idioms; oxymorons; synecdoches; the list goes on and on.
Playing with sound and pattern can help make language more memorable. It’s the reason she sells seashells, not piña coladas, by the seashore.
Alliteration strings words with the same first letter, sound, or syllabic cadence. Assonance repeats a similar set of vowel sounds to emphasise mood and intensity. Cacophony mashes together words with harsh consonants, usually at the beginnings. And onomatopoeia uses words that emulate sound (‘bam’, ‘whoosh’, etc).
These devices, used sparingly and discerningly in our messaging, can add impact and aid recall.
Language isn’t only about the words, it’s also in the way we deliver them.
We can string words together quickly and energetically to convey urgency or enthusiasm. We can slow the pace to create a mood that’s relaxed or considered. We can adopt a measured, structured style that uses longer sentences and incorporates more ideas, to demonstrate credibility, authority, and expertise.
We can add nuance to speech simply in the way we say the words. Paralanguage is a combination of speech and body language. It includes pitch, tone, and speed.
The delivery of ‘Bond, James Bond’ is no coincidence. Pausing between words demonstrates credibility. Curling his voice down in the last syllable conveys confidence and competence. A slight Scottish lisp is icing on the cake.
Even the way we structure a sentence can direct our attention to a particular word. Consider ‘Give the girl the cocktail’ as opposed to ’Give the cocktail to the girl’. What do we want to emphasise?
Casting our minds back in time to our learnings about delivery modes, let’s consider the inherent advantages and disadvantages of spoken, written, and visual languages, and choose the one that best fits our purpose. Then, let’s ensure we communicate in a way that complements the mode.
Let’s not forget the unspoken. 80–90% of all spoken communication is non-verbal. These are signals that complement speech, adding meaning and context to what we say.
Non-verbals can be used to reinforce or contradict our words, convey emotion, define the relationship with the people we’re talking to, provide feedback when someone else is speaking, or regulate the flow of conversation.
This type of communication is often instinctual, and far harder to consciously control than the words we use. This makes it a much more accurate representation of a person’s thoughts and feelings compared to what they’re actually saying. Actions do speak louder than words.
Non-verbal communication includes physical movement, facial expressions, body postures, gestures, oculesics (eyes), haptics (touching), proxemics (distance), physiological changes, and breathing.
Breathing is easily the most important. It indicates our mood, and influences our state of mind. High, shallow, rapid breathing releases chemicals that drive the desire for fight or flight. This type of breathing is typically associated with nervousness, anxiety, or anger. Slower, deeper breathing makes us relax, and conveys confidence.
The term ‘body language’ is deceptive, as it isn’t a proper language, per se. It’s only a small component of non-verbal communication. Unlike sign language, which is a complete language system capable of comprehensive communication, body language is quite open to interpretation.
While some non verbals are universal, many very between countries and cultures. Eye contact is considered a sign of trustworthiness in many western cultures, but disrespectful in Australian indigenous communities. And we’ve already identified the hazards of using hand gestures cross-culturally.
The only grudging consensus is that seven emotions are universally obvious in our expressions: happiness, surprise, fear, anger, contempt, disgust, and sadness. Though recent evidence suggests pride and shame may also be universal.
Communication is a two way process. Using language effectively means improving how we receive messages, as well as how we send them.
† It’s inevitable that in writing a piece about language, I’ll have committed a plethora of grammatical sins. Please feel free to point out every single one of them in passively condescending delight.
Great language is often a balancing act between all the elements we’ve just explored. Light/serious; professional/colloquial; novel/familiar. The further we push one, another needs to balance it out.
If we’re going to get loose with our words, we need our technicals to be tight. If we’re communicating relatively straight content in a simple structure, we can push the tone further to inject more personality. We can mash colloquial language together with sophisticated concepts. These contrasts are where we can really play.
Also bringing together several of the aspects we’ve just discussed, communicating complex subject matter effectively is about removing confusion and adding interest.
It begins with understanding the content. This sounds obvious, yet it’s surprisingly rarely done. We need to read all the source material and understand it implicitly ourselves.
Then, we strip it right back to basics—what’s necessary, and what’s the simplest way we can say it? Remove all the bullshit, the generic buzz words, the corporate jargon, the corporate cliches, and the redundancies. Rip, rip, rip it up!
Then, we start from scratch. We write it again, as simply as possible. Even if—especially if—it cuts the length in half (which it often will).
Once we’ve got the bones, then we can flesh it out. Now’s the time to add flavour to the language; introduce emotion through metaphors and stories. Any earlier, we’d be only adding confusion—polishing the proverbial.
I jest of course—over-dramatising just for effect. All of the previous holds true, but it comes with a caveat.
Of all the articles I consumed during the process of putting this quarterly together, the one I still find myself coming back to most often is a not-so-recent Harvard Business Review article on linguistic styles by Deborah Tannen.†
Language functions on two levels. The first is communicating our thoughts. The second, linguistic style, is the way that we establish and negotiate relationships.
Linguistic style refers to the way we typically speak. It varies between countries, cultures, and genders. It includes directness, turn-taking, pacing and pausing, word choice, and how we use jokes, figures of speech, stories, questions, and apologies.
Tannen’s research into language in the workplace revealed that what we say is often overridden by how we say it. Our linguistic style influences how we’re perceived, and how we perceive others.
Let’s consider an aspect as simple as pace and pausing. At one end of the speed spectrum, we have New Yorkers. Residents of the Big Apple speak fast—their words tumble over the top of each other, punctuated by very short pauses. On the other end of the spectrum, Australians tend to speak quite slowly.
In a conversation between an Australian and a New Yorker, pace would play a big part in influencing what each person thought of the other. The Australian would likely set off at a leisurely clip, then pause a moment to think. Based on the typical brevity of their pauses, the New Yorker would assume the Australian was finished, and jump in to take their turn, possibly speaking over the top.
The Australian could easily interpret the New Yorker as rude or uninterested. The New Yorker would likely assume the Australian was boring or had nothing to say. Both incorrect assumptions, made based purely on two very different linguistic styles.
We can trace these linguistic styles all the way back to the playground, and the different ways we socialise as boys and girls. Language is learned socially and culturally, and linguistic style is no different.
Girls often play in small groups or in pairs. They use language to establish how close they are, downplaying the ways one might be superior, and emphasising the ways they’re the same. They learn that confidence or assertiveness can make them unpopular with their peers—perceived as bossy or stuck-up. So, they downplay their status, but rely on the other girls understanding the ritual nature of their self-deprecation, and hoisting them back up.
Young bucks play differently. Often in larger groups, and certainly not as equals. Status is sought and celebrated, never downplayed. Language is used to assert knowledge and skills, and challenge others. Attention is won through stories or jokes. Little-alphas-in-the-making are expected to tell others what to do, without the same stigma that girls the same age face.
As a result, men are often intuitively more aware of status in interactions, using language that elevates them. Women are more likely to seek rapport, using language to avoid dominance and helping others save face, at the expense of their own status.
Our way of using language is reinforced as we get older, becoming norms by the time we enter the workforce. As a result, even in workplaces that appear mono-cultural, there can be cross-cultural communication just between men and women.
These norms become woven into our communication rituals. These rituals work fantastically when everyone involved understands them. Otherwise—not so much.‡
Let’s look at some of the ways linguistic style, norms, and rituals can impact us in the workplace.
A choice as simple as using ‘we’ or ‘I’ can change who gets the credit. Not surprisingly, men are more likely to use ‘I’ for status, while women use ‘we’ to share the credit, and build rapport.
Blokes are far more likely to bluster their way through uncertainty—our status demands confidence over humility.
True story: I once drove thirty minutes in a direction I knew was wrong, just because my partner, Jen, out-alpha’d me with unwavering conviction she knew the right way. There were certainly no winners on that occasion.
Ritual opposition is another wonderful opportunity for disaster.
Some folk approach discussion as a battle—exploration through opposition. They present their ideas with the utmost certainty and authority, and when challenged, will fight tooth and nail to defend their idea.
Logically, this makes sense. It allows them to test an idea; see where the holes are. They challenge others’ ideas in the same way, helping in a way that makes sense to them. It’s all well and good, as long as all sparring partners enter the conversation with an equally belligerent attitude towards problem-solving.
Others (me), will fold under the slightest resistance, preferring to wave the white flag and play dead than endure an argument. These sensitive folk need to be encouraged to share their ideas, coaxed from their shells like nervous turtles. The slightest sign of confrontation will result in full scale retreat.
We’ve already discussed how indirectness or implication is an integral part of the way we communicate. Indirect speech typically fosters relationships and builds rapport, while direct speech conveys dominance.
In a business environment, however, indirectness can easily be misinterpreted as uncertainty, a lack of confidence, and even incompetence. Far from ideal.
Asking the right questions is generally seen as positive, but in the wrong situations, and with the wrong audience, it can undermine our authority and can even be interpreted as incompetence.
If only one person in a group asks questions, they risk being singled out as the weakest member. There’s also the risk they’ll be treated with condescension by someone with a higher status. We don’t just judge people by the way they speak, but also the way others speak to them.
Women tend to apologise more frequently than men. Not because they’re wrong more often, but as a ritual to express concern. Men are more wary of the status implications of apologising, and are less likely to do it—even when they really should.
As a result, men are prone to misinterpreting apologies as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence, or even as literal admissions of guilt.
Giving feedback contains ritual elements with the plenty of potential to cause misunderstandings.
Sad news pals: the shit sandwich, that big old gristly slab of criticism snuck between two delicious compliments, may not actually be as great as it’s purported to be.
The problem in using indirect feedback to avoid dominance, is the potential to be seen as weak or uncertain. We also risk sending the wrong message to someone inclined to direct feedback. Because we’re putting more emphasis on what’s right, not what’s wrong, it can be taken as positive feedback and left unresolved.
On the flip side, using direct feedback on a sensitive flower (me) will make them wilt like peonies on a hot summer day. Yes, even though I know exactly what you’re doing, I’ll stick with my shit sandwich, thanks mate.
You’d think giving compliments would be safe enough, but this seemingly innocuous ritual is a veritable booby trap.
Linguist Janet Holmes found that women pay more compliments than men, again, to build rapport. However, there’s a danger in confusing a compliment ritual with a legitimate request for feedback.
Yes, fishing for compliments under the guise of asking for feedback can end very badly if the other person interprets our request literally. Far safer to simply ask for a pat on the back when that’s all we really want. There’s no shame in that.
Everyone speaks differently when talking to a boss compared to a peer or junior. The same also applies to age or social status.
However, the way we adjust our language to show respect can change the way we’re perceived, and not necessarily for the best. By lowering our own status or adopting indirect language, we risk being seen as less confident or less competent.
Frankly, women cop a pretty raw deal in all of this.
That isn’t to say that all males chase status and every female craves rapport. Heck, the way I speak could’ve come straight from the girls playground, and Jen is perfectly comfortable giving alpha males a solid helping of their own linguistic style.
Certainly, neither style is wrong. However, the norms in business still favour a typically male linguistic style. Traditional leadership still tilts towards dominance, directness, and certainty. Status continues to be rewarded and reinforced through promotions, perception of performance, and acknowledgement of contribution.
Sadly, this also means that folk with a linguistic style biased towards relationships can be misinterpreted as weak, uncertain, or even incompetent—and punished accordingly.
Understanding the tendencies towards different linguistic styles is a critical skill for all good leaders. We can’t judge a book buy it’s cover, nor a person by their language, it seems.
We need to look past our own norms when interpreting what others are saying. We also need to be flexible—understanding how our language might be interpreted, and adapting where necessary.
† If you’re interested in reading Tannen’s original article (and we recommend you do)—right this way, folks.
‡ Speaking of communication rituals—let’s talk handshakes. I yearn for the innate ability some folk have to determine when a fist bump, bro shake, or traditional handshake is appropriate. It’s a social ritual I fail to fully comprehend, resulting in fumbling through a series of excruciating indignities involving crushed fingers and petit mesdames, then scuttling away before the recipient has a chance to contemplate the atrocity just committed.
It’s somewhat ironic that Shakespeare, a man whose reputation is tied to words, penned the line ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.
In our old pal Willy’s play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet indulges in a good old-fashioned soliloquy to convince herself that it doesn’t matter that Romeo has the surname ‘Montague’. She believes that his name makes no difference, even if it’s the name of her family’s arch enemy.
We all know how things worked out for those two loved-up optimists, but the real tragedy here is having the line parroted for the better part of 400 years whenever anyone wants to belittle the importance of a name.
The ending of Romeo and Juliet alone renders the argument invalid, but research also proves Juliet wrong. Names do matter.
In an distinctly academic ‘screw you’ to Shakespeare, Jelena Djordjevic and pals at McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute conducted a study called A Rose by Any Other Name: Would it Smell as Sweet? to find out if the way a scent is labelled influences how people perceive it.
Turns out—it does. Subjects were served a buffet of 15 scents, varying from foul, to neutral, to nice. Each smell was presented with names that were positive (‘carrot juice’), neutral (a two digit number), or negative (‘mouldy vegetables’). Perversely, no matter how good or gross the smell, people rated it as more pleasant when it was presented with a positive name, and less pleasant when presented with a negative name. This wasn’t just a subjective rating either—it was physiological. When the smell had a positive name, subjects sniffed more, and their skin conductance and heart rate showed arousal.
Speaking of smelly things: children. Researchers Harari, Herbert, and McDavid, found that how you name our progeny might influence their academic results. The experiment provided a group of teachers with essays to grade. Nothing unusual here, except that that the teachers weren’t aware that the names on the essays were fake. In a very unfortunate finding for anyone saddled with an uncomely moniker, students with unpopular or unattractive names (‘Olga’ or ‘Boris’) received significantly lower grades than the kids with attractive or popular names (‘Jennifer’ or ‘David’).
Perhaps even more importantly for our offspring’s self esteem, MIT researcher Amy Perfors found that our name can influence how attractive others find us. She posted photos of 24 of her friends at hotornot.com, a site where people are rated on their looks. She embellished this cruelty by posting each photo twice, using two different names.
Surprisingly, Perfors discovered that the photos received different ratings depending on the name that was used. For females, it seems we find full, round-sounding names (‘Laura’) more attractive than names with smaller, sharper vowel sounds. For males, names with vowel sounds made at the front of the mouth (‘e’ or ‘i’) make a man seem more handsome.
The obvious moral to this story is avoiding friendships with psychologists, but also the potential to save hours on the porch with a shotgun during adolescence, simply by bestowing your child with a hideous name.
With these findings in mind, consider the consequences and possibilities for the way we name our people and departments.
Is a sporting team that refers to their players as ‘lads’ or ‘boys’ perpetuating laddish or boyish behaviour? Would they be better served by using ‘men’ or even a more collective ‘team’ instead? It’s no coincidence that the army uses derogatory singular terms to break down individuals before building them back up as a collective unit of soldiers.
Has the name ‘Human Resources’ and referring to employees as ‘assets’ perpetuated a point of view that celebrates the pursuit of profit at the expense of people?† Have these names influenced the way people have been treated at work, and the way that they approach their work as a result?
It sure seems likely, especially as more organisations shift from ‘Human Resources’ to ‘Employee Experience’ departments and terminology. And while a simple name change might not seem like much, it heralds a growing trend towards a more human workplace where employees and customers are valued equally.
Call someone something, not only will we see them that way, but they’ll likely begin to see themselves that way too—and act the part.
Airbnb uses ‘host’ to refer to the people offering their properties for rent. There’s many options they could’ve used, but this particular word carries a welcoming tone. Others, like ‘landlord’, would’ve conveyed a very different feeling.
Subway calls their people ‘artists’, which is a relative term, I guess. Is it marketing for the customer’s benefit, or does it subliminally inspire a feeling of pride in Subway’s people for every well-crafted sandwich? A simple name has the potential to turn a bored teen working in fast food into a ranch-sauce-toting artist attacking foot longs with all the abandon of Jackson Pollack.
† Dr Jason Fox recently wrote a very good piece about renaming Human Resources. You should definitely read it.
Moving on, studies have also found we’re more likely to remember something when we know its name.
In an experiment veering into the paranormal, psychologist Gary Lupyan showed folk a series of images of aliens and asked them to guess whether they were friendly or hostile. After each response, they were told if they were right or wrong, helping them learn the subtle features that indicated each alien’s intentions.
But here’s the twist: before the experiment, a quarter of the group were told that the friendly aliens were named Leebish and the hostile ones were called Grecious. Another quarter were told the opposite. And for the remaining half, the aliens remained nameless.
The results revealed that the half who were told the aliens had names learned to categorise the aliens far faster, reaching 80% accuracy in less than half the time taken by the other group. By the end of the experiment, they were also able to correctly identify friendly and hostile aliens more accurately.
Our memory isn’t only influenced by knowing a name though. How we categorise something can also affect the way in which we remember it.
In an experiment with much more mundane subject matter, a lucky bunch of participants viewed furniture taken from an IKEA catalog. In half the questions they were asked to label the object (‘chair’, ‘bed’, ‘lamp’, etc), the rest of the time they simply had to say whether they liked it or not.
Interestingly, in the instances when they labelled an object, people found it more difficult to remember specific details about the product later. Not surprisingly, by categorising things, our memory tends to treats them as more generic.
Our exact choice of words can also influence others’ actions by evoking positive or negative emotions. This devious technique is known as loaded language (also: emotive language or high-inference language).
It’s a trick abused regularly by politicians, public figures, and brands, to exploit our tendency to act on our initial emotional response, without ample consideration. It’s a tactic best used for good, and never when fairness and impartiality is required.
Words like ‘torture’ and ‘freedom’ carry an emotional charge that resonates beyond their literal meaning. These words trigger a value judgment that escalates into an emotion.
Consider the difference between ‘invading Iraq’ and ‘liberating Iraq’. Are they ‘illegal aliens’ or ‘undocumented workers’? Is buying a new Jeep Wrangler a ‘cost’ or an ‘investment’? 🤔
Effective language isn’t only about what words we use, it’s how we string them together. We’re not talking about grammar, sentence structure, or other technicals now though—we’re talking about stories.
All the way back to our beginnings, we’ve used storytelling as a way to transmit memories and knowledge. It’s the way we naturally communicate and connect. Stories comprise around 65% of our conversations, and even our lives are lived out as a series of self-written narratives. We don’t do any of this consciously, it’s just the way that we’re wired.
Back in the beginning, we made briefest mention that language is processed in Broca’s and Wernicke’s regions of the brain. Whenever we’re using language laden with facts or logic, it’s business-as-usual in these areas.
Storytelling, however, shakes things up. The language doesn’t change, but using a narrative imbues the words with meaning, feeling, and emotion. In addition to the language processing areas, stories stimulate other areas of our brains—areas typically associated with our senses.
Stories tend to be rich in sensory detail, much like life:
Bone-weary and slightly dejected, Frank fell into his favourite chair to shake off the day. He blew a long breath, then reached for a board with a fresh loaf of ciabatta and a particularly powerful blue cheese.
Blue cheese—the mere mention conjures a formidable scent. But what really thrills, is that in that split second while reading the word, we aren’t exactly imagining the smell. Our brain actually responds as if we’d taken a big old whiff.
Researchers in Spain discovered that reading words associated with strong smells (‘coffee’, ‘perfume’, ‘lavender’, or ‘soap’) excites our primary olfactory cortex. Folk from Emory University found that metaphors involving texture (‘the singer had a velvet voice’ or ‘he had leathery hands’) rouses our sensory cortex. In contrast, generic phrases with a similar meaning (‘the singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘he had strong hands’) does not.
Similarly, cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger found that sentences like ‘John grasped the object’ or ‘Pablo kicked the ball’ triggers activity in our motor cortex. This isn’t just general activity either—different parts of the cortex ignite depending on which part of the body the sentence describes.
These studies show that our brain doesn’t distinguish between reading or hearing stories and metaphors involving our senses, and actually experiencing them ourselves. This means using language abundant with metaphors and sensory detail can evoke richer and more compelling communication.
Stay wary of cliches though, friends. Our brains are well-practiced at filtering generic or overused words and phrases. Figures of speech like ‘a rough day’ are so often used that they’re relegated to the same processing areas as facts and logic.
Beyond our senses, there’s also a cognitive coupling that occurs between a storyteller and their audience. A well-told tale evokes a phenomenon known as neural entrainment, a type of brain-bonding where the listener’s brain activity aligns with the speaker’s.
Psychologist Uri Hasson conducted a series of experiments that revealed the more we understand or relate to a story, the closer our brain activity aligns.
He began by taking a story and playing it backwards, completely stripping meaning and comprehension. Everyone who listened to the recording showed the same activity in their auditory cortex. Simply hearing the same sound was enough to introduce entrainment.
Next, he took the words from the story and scrambled the order. Alignment spread beyond the auditory cortex and into the early language areas. Using the same words, he then compiled them into random sentences. Alignment now extended through all language areas.
Finally, he played the unmodified story. With the introduction of meaning, alignment passed beyond the auditory and language cortices, and into the higher order areas, including the frontal and parietal cortices. This revealed that the listeners all understood and experienced the story in exactly the same way.
To confirm his theory, Hasson had the story translated into Russian and played the recording to Russian speakers. As expected, activity in the auditory cortex was different from the English speakers, reflecting the difference in words. However, the higher order areas showed exactly the same activity. The story carried the same meaning, and carried the same influence, no matter the language.
Hasson found that the most effective coupling relies on the storyteller establishing shared context and common ground. This is why good storytellers often bounce back and forth with their audience to identify similarities.
A curious product of this bond is our tendency towards making other people’s stories our own. When we hear a story, our instinct is to relate it to our own experiences. This stimulates a part of the brain called the insula, which associates memories with emotions. When we find something in the story we identify with, the lines between memory, story, and reality begin to blur. We experience the story as if it were actually happening to us.
Yes, if you’ve ever told someone a story then had it told back to you three weeks later—fist bumps for telling a truly excellent tale. But imagine the possibilities for fostering the same phenomenon in your work. Rather than turgid dumps of technical content, a simple story could give others ownership over the idea or message—making it much more likely they’d remember it.
This shared perspective can also be used to influence how a story is perceived.
Hasson conducted an experiment using J.D. Salinger’s short story ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’. It’s a tale about a man who loses his wife at a party, and calls his friend who seems to be with her. Hasson capitalises on the ambiguity by framing each half of the group with a different possibility.
The first group are framed to believe that the wife is having affair with the friend. The other group is framed to believe that the wife is loyal and the husband is jealous. The results showed that this played a pivotal role in how each group interpreted the plot.
The catch, of course, is that the people we’re coupled to can also influence our own perspective. The news sources we listen to; the people we trust; our community, culture; even our family members—all affect our point of view. The only antidote is an open mind, and a network that challenges us with diverse beliefs and perspectives.
Here’s some good news for the fiction lovers among you, my bookish pals. Recent psychology studies led by Doctors Oatley and Mar discovered that in contrast to the unflattering stereotypes, folk who frequently read fiction tend to understand others better, and find it easier to see different perspectives.
In the same way our brain treats descriptions of smells, textures, and movements as if they were real, it also sees no difference between fictional character interactions and real-life social interactions. fMRI results show our brain activity is similar whether we’re reading about fictional encounters, or trying to figure out other people’s thoughts and feelings in real life. This understanding of ourselves and others is known as theory of mind.
Like computer simulations, fiction simulates reality. Stories provide an opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes. A chance to experience another person’s thoughts and emotions—a way to explore the complexities of being human.
Stories certainly don’t need to be complex to be engaging. The best tales, the ones we relate most to, often use simple language and a straight-forward narrative. The typical arc from beginning, through a series of complications, to a climax, then a final resolution, has remained unchanged for centuries.
Good storytellers occasionally allow their audience to guess what might happen. Only a quarterly previous (but what seems like forever ago), we discussed the emotion of anticipation. We found that in many cases, fostering anticipation can be more powerful than surprise. This is definitely the case in stories, where anticipation gives us something to look forward to, and the satisfaction of predicting an outcome.
Surely the most confusing, wonderful, infuriating, exciting, occasionally downright depressing part of being human is our ability to feel emotions. Yes, each day it’s all aboard a rollercoaster of feels for a thrillingly unpredictable ride through the highs and lows. A white water rafting expedition through turbulent rivers of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. A volatile… meh, you get the picture.
Until recently, emotions have been an area of much debate and very little fact. The challenge has been taking intangible, complex, highly personal, and difficult-to-define feelings, and expressing them in words. Fortunately, recent advances in brain imaging have allowed us to observe the intimacies of brain activity, a method far less prone to differences in interpretation. The resulting research has uncovered a fascinating relationship between language and emotions.
Let’s begin with the question: how do language and emotions interact? Which comes first—words or feelings? Oh yes, it’s the oft-used chicken-and-egg scenario here.
We’ll roll with the well-worn and most-proven psychological constructionist approach: language helps constitute emotion.
Studies show that when we’re experiencing emotions, various language areas in our brain are active, even when we aren’t using words to express how we feel. This suggests that language might do more than simply translate our feelings into words, it might also help shape those emotions to begin with.
Supporting this idea, when we’re unable to access language, we find it more difficult to identify emotions, even when our response doesn’t require words. There’s also evidence that increased access to language during a negative emotion can change the way we experience it.
Language also helps us learn and categorise emotions, even when they’re unfamiliar.
Psychologists Fugate, Gouzoules, and Barrett showed a group of participants pictures of chimpanzees with various facial expressions. Half the group were shown the same images, but labelled with nonsense words. Later, both groups were shown images extracted from a morphed sequence between two expressions (a hoot to bared teeth, or bared teeth to a grin). They were asked to identify when two faces in the array showed the same emotion, and when they were different.
The group that had learned to associate the expressions with labels found the task easier, and were more likely to see the boundary between the different expressions. It didn’t matter if we the words weren’t real, simply having a word to associate with the emotion made the difference.
On a more lowbrow note, I was especially delighted to discover that swearing not only effectively expresses our emotions, but can also amplify them as well. Oh yes, a good verbal ejaculation of filthy adjectives can actually intensify your feelings. Feeling joyous? Want to feel more joyous? Just bellow a fiery ‘F*CK YEAH!’ and ride that post-profanity high.
The way we think about an emotion can change the way we experience it. We can consciously change the intensity, meaning, or expression of our experience by recategorising our emotional state. This is a psychology technique known as reappraisal.
Let’s say we were quivering at the top of a diving board, paralysed by fear. We could recategorise our feeling from ‘terrified’ to ‘exhilarated’. Neuroimaging shows that when we reappraise an experience, there’s activity in our ventrolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortices—areas associated with semantic knowledge and retrieval. This indicates that language is playing a role in changing our emotion.
It’s also possible to regulate our emotions simply by identifying them—a concept in psychology called affect labelling.
Psychologists Pennebaker, Lieberman, and pals showed research participants facial expressions with strong emotions. Using an fMRI, it was observed that the images elicited a strong response in the amygdala, an area associated with emotion—particularly fear.
Interestingly though, when participants were asked to label the emotion, activity in the amygdala decreased, and increased in the prefrontal cortical regions—where vigilance and discrimination occur. Naming the emotion transferred the emotion into an object of academic scrutiny, rather than something to be afraid of and react to emotionally.
Of course, if you regularly practice mindfulness, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. The concept of affect labelling certainly isn’t confined to psychology, and it definitely isn’t new. It’s known by many names, and the fundamentals used in numerous techniques.
In many forms of mindfulness, practitioners label their psychological state with a word. Feelings, senses, and emotions are observed without judgement, and without trying to change or eliminate them. Not surprisingly, these forms of mindfulness produce the same brain activity as affect labelling experiments in psychology.
Whether it’s mindfulness, psychology, acceptance commitment therapy, journalling, or telling kids to ‘use your words!’, it’s proven that writing or talking about emotions can help reduce the intensity, reduce stress, and a whole bunch of other benefits.
Over the centuries there’s been plenty of debate about the origin of language. Where did it come from, when, and easily most argued—why? Oh yes, we’re up to our Aristotles in philosophy now, friends.
Regardless of whether you believe our kind came from monkey, garden, or spaceship, it’s generally accepted that language evolved (or existed) to facilitate co-operation.
The most common scientific theory is that early man-beasts expanded their primate communication systems to form theory of mind and a shared intentionality. For those who believe in a more spiritual and civilised origin than evolution from apes, the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel describes how God scattered people with different languages to prevent them working together.
Language allows us to share knowledge, ideas, and stories within our group, but almost as importantly, it allows us to protects it from outsiders. In this way, language identifies us as belonging to a particular culture, while excluding everyone else. Oh yes, no matter how cosmopolitan our outlook, our tribal tendencies still run deep.
Even within a particular language, our accents and dialects reveal our affiliation to subcultures—nationality, religion, social class, club, gang, team, culture, pastime, political persuasion, profession, or employer. We often have different dialects for each of these different cultural affiliations.
Let’s pause a moment here, and look at the word ‘culture’. It’s a term that’s banged on about plenty in the business world. A vague-ish word used to encompass a fuzzy set of shared attitudes, beliefs, rituals, conventions, norms, assumptions, and values. These influence our behaviour, how we interpret other people’s behaviour, and as a result—the way in which we interact.
Language is essential in expressing these elements. It also encodes schemas, categories, and metaphors that help us make sense. In this way, language is shaped by, and plays a role in shaping culture.
Within any culture, language plays a social role in displaying and constructing personal and group identity.
I’m a husband, a brother, a son, a writer, a surfer, a snowboarder, a videographer, a company director, a curious skeptic, and a really bad human before I’ve had coffee. I can tell you firsthand that each of these identities exhibits distinct cultural and language differences.
Don’t feel bad for me though—you have multiple identities too. Studies have documented people talking about unique responsibilities in their life in two minute blocks. The footage reveals distinct differences in eye contact and frequency of blinking; language speed, intonation, and undulation; gestural frequency and amplitude; and posture, for each of these identities. It’s no wonder that life is so exhausting.
In addition to identifying us as belonging to a particular culture, language plays a role in how we’re positioned within that group. Deixis refers to the way certain words refer to objects, people, and places in relation to their position in time and space. This concept is also used to signalling social distance and hierarchy between people.
Every culture has a system of social deixis. In English, we use first names when we’re on familiar terms, and titles like ‘sir’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Your Honour’, to show respect. Other languages use more complex conventions. There may be grammatical variations depending on the gender, age, or social class of the speaker, and the person they’re talking to.
In East Asia, different words are used depending on whether the speaker is talking to someone of a higher or lower social status. In Australia, the indigenous language Dyirbal requires a married man use a special set of words when speaking in the presence of his mother-in-law.
Within our work culture, how do we address each other? Do we use formal titles or informal first names? Does our language amplify hierarchy or flatten it out? What subcultures exist, and are the divisions magnified through the use of different language or dialects?
Language can indicate cultural values by revealing more, or more nuanced words for areas of importance.
French is an excellent language for appreciating food in lip-smacking detail. Mongolian has a solid chunk of the language dedicated to discussing animals, which makes sense given their agricultural bent. Japanese reveals a fascination for the seasons inherited from their agricultural past. It’s also the language of choice for being polite. Learning Japanese involves learning how to say please and thank you in several hundred forms, depending on the situation and who you’re addressing.
In our organisations, are there a proliferation of words to describe sales, or safety, or job satisfaction? Are we emphasising what’s important to us by representing it in our business language?
I was going to finish tongue-in-cheek with the soundly-flogged example of snow and eskimo’s, but thankfully I fact-checked first. Turns out there are several languages in the Inuit and Yupik families, and even within a single dialect, there’s not much evidence of more words than English for snow. Which robs my conclusion of a little thunder, sadly.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for leaders of large organisations is faithfully translating the brand, vision and values, and communication to a global workforce.
It means forging a cohesive organisational culture still flexible enough to dovetail with very unique regional cultures. Fostering collaboration between teams composed of very different backgrounds. Creating messaging that’s not only understood—but connects.
While words can be literally translated, this doesn’t ensure the same meaning is conveyed. Cultural context plays a massive role in the way language is interpreted.
Using a language is more than simply translating words, communicating like a native speaker requires we also learn the unique cultural codes, behaviours, and customs.
Even when it comes to translating fiction, I’ve always wondered how much is lost. Beyond the style and lyricism of the words, how much of the meaning and subtleties of the story are lost when it’s translated into another language?
I really want to like Murakami, but I confess that I’ve always found his writing… odd. Strange even by Japanese standards of strangeness, which certainly speaks volumes. I’ve ploughed stubborn through three of his books, and each has felt like I was missing something, or misunderstanding what he was trying to say.
So, I was intrigued to read an interview in The New Yorker with Murakami and one of his regular translators, Jay Rubin.
When asked about the most untranslatable element of Murakami’s work, Rubin responded: ‘everything’. It turns out that English speakers aren’t actually reading Murakami, we’re reading Rubin at least 95% of the time. The plot, names, and locations are Murakami’s, but the English words and their interpretation are Rubin’s.
The greatest challenge, is in the cultural differences encoded into the language.
The problem begins with trying to translate the various forms of ‘I’ (‘watashi’/‘boku’) used in Japanese, and conveying the different identity, etiquette, and formality into English, where we only have one all-encompassing ‘I’.
English speakers also value specificity, whereas the Japanese language derives beauty from indirectness. To us, a literal translation would seem vague and ambiguous—the meaning obscure. Yet to a Japanese speaker, it’s the implied and unmentioned that matter the most. Subjects are left out of sentences, vernacular sounds and onomatopoeia are used to suggest meaning. It’s a concept close to impossible to replicate in English. It simply doesn’t translate.
Humour is also difficult to translate effectively. This isn’t only for jokes like puns that rely on language, but because different cultures find different things funny. Even within the English language, American and British humour are quite unique. Consider the TV series The Office, and the movie Death at a Funeral. The same storylines are delivered very differently in each culture.
Ironically, the most amusing cross-cultural humour derives from mistranslations. Ever sniggered inappropriately at a menu translation? No? You’re probably a much better person than me.
‘It’s that pigheaded effort to convey in words of another language not only the literal meaning of a poem but an alien way of seeing things … To translate is not only to experience what makes each language distinct, but to draw close to the mystery of the relationship between word and thing, letter and spirit, self and world.’ — Charles Simic
Linguist Umberto Eco proposed that every culture can be studied as communication using semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and their meaning in different cultures. He also warned that our messages can be interpreted differently from what was intended when we don’t share the same language, belief system, or culture. This is a notion known as aberrant decoding.
When we look at cave paintings, most of us see a herd of bison, the ground trembling under their hooves in their triumphant escape from the hunters behind. However, psychologist Margaret Abercrombie argues that our cultural value towards living animals has resulted in an aberrant decoding of the pictograms.
The people who used this language had a very different set of values. Pre-vegan, pre-vegetarian, pre-farm, pre-abattoir, pre-supermarket, their lives depended on the hunt and… the kill. If we look closer at the bison in the paintings, Abercrombie says, we see they’re actually on their sides. I hate to break this to you guys, but she’s saying those bison are actually… dead.† 😢
Looking at this idea in a business context, the Disney brand is synonymous with American culture, but also works very well in Japan with very little adaption. Japanese culture values cuteness and gift-giving, so it’s not surprising that Tokyo Disney has been successful, with the highest sales of souvenirs worldwide. Then, there was Disneyland Paris. The venture failed gloriously because Disney didn’t succeed in translating the brand to align with French culture codes.
In contrast, Nike seeks to understanding the unique cultural codes that define their consumers in each market, and adapts their language to suit. When marketing to men, Nike uses a tool called The Ideal Man, to construct the messaging. Each culture has a different idea of what being a man means. Nike identifies these qualities through a series of questions based on sociology and social anthropology.
This tool allows Nike to translate a single-minded message across extremely diverse cultures. Very different words may be used in each region, but the message aligns far more accurately to the cultural codes than a literal word-for-word translations of Western marketing slogans.
† Or tired. Yeah. They were just very, very tired. Probably just sleeping, guys.
It’s time to go deeper down the rabbit hole, friends, and dabble a toe into philosophy. This is where things get exciting. Best approach with an open mind and child-like wonder, but a sense of self-preservation too. Like pondering the notion of infinity with a finite brain, oh yes, this is going to toast your crumpet crispy.
For centuries philosophers have argued the relationship between language and thought, meaning, and reality. Is thought a form of internal language encoded into our mind? Or is thought independent of language? Chicken, egg; chicken, egg. Perhaps they co-exist—always together; never one without the other. These are questions scientific fields like linguistics or psychology haven’t been able to resolve.
Greek philosopher Gorgias argued that language can’t possibly represent the objective or human experience, therefore communication and truth are both impossible. Plato, the old contrarian, argued that language merely represents ideas and concepts that exist independently of, and prior to language.
During the Enlightenment, debate resumed around the origins of people and language. Thinkers Rousseau and Herder proposed that language originated as an expression of emotion. They likened language to music and poetry, rather than a logical expression of rational thought. Not surprisingly, philosophers with a rationalist bent, like Kant and Descartes, argued exactly the opposite.
At the turn of the 20th century, the philosophers were back at it, reheating Plato’s idea of language as a reflection of the world, and countering it with the notion that language might play a part in shaping our experience of the world. This lead to the intriguing principle of linguistic relativity.
At its most extreme, linguistic determinism states that our language completely limits our thoughts, and determines how we experience reality. This proposes that different cultures see the world entirely differently because of their language.
The principle was championed by two fellows, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. Such was their zeal, that linguistic determinism is also referred to as Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis or Whorfianism. Unfortunately, while it made for very exciting possibilities, there was unfortunately absolutely no evidence to support it.
The watered-down version, linguistic influence, simply suggests that language influences our perspective and the way we think about things. This is where things get really interesting though. Advances in brain imaging technology in the late 1980’s and 1990’s finally allowed cognitive psychologists and linguists to finally prove subtle but definite differences in the way speakers of different languages think and see the world.
Linguistic influence has inspired numerous artificially constructed languages designed to encourage new and better ways of thinking.
Loglan was an experiment by James Cooke Brown to see if he could help speakers think more logically. Láadan was invented by Suzette Haden Elgin to express a less male-centric worldview compared to European languages. Toki Pona is a minimal, human language with only 100 words, designed to convey maximum meaning with minimum complexity. And Ithkuil is a philosophical experiment to optimise language.
E-Prime (short for English-Prime, and sometimes represented as É or E′), eliminates all forms of the verb ‘to be’, including conjugations, contractions, and archaic forms. The inventors, Kellogg and Bourland, claim that the abuse of this verb fosters ‘deity mode of speech’, allowing anyone to express opinions as if they were fact.
In E-Prime, we’re unable to say, ‘the film was good’. We’d have to say, ‘I liked the film’ or ‘the film made me laugh’. This forces the writer to communicate experience, rather than generic opinion lacking in reason. In turn, this makes the reader less likely to confuse opinion with fact.
Programming languages make a compelling case for linguistic influence.
This isn’t news to programmers, coders, or developers. Both Ruby and APL were inspired by Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. APL was built on the premise that more powerful notations can aid us in thinking about computer algorithms.
Whorfianism offers endless stimulus for writers.
One of the best-known examples is George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell describes an authoritarian state that uses language to control the population. Newspeak removes words from the English language to eliminate nuance, and remove freedom of thought and self-expression. Language constricts expression to simple concepts: ‘good’ and ‘ungood’; ‘goodthink’ and ‘crimethink’. Words are made opposite by the adding ‘un’ as a prefix, or made stronger by adding ‘plus’ or ‘doubleplus’ as a prefix.
Anthem by Ayn Rand explores a similar idea, imagining a communist society that eliminates individualism by removing the word ‘I’ from their language. Babel-17 by Samuel Delaney also removes ‘I’, and uses language as a weapon to turn enemies against themselves by altering perception and thought.
In The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance, languages are used to divide social classes. The inventor of the Láadan language, Suzette Haden Elgin, wrote Native Tongue, which imagines a dystopian society where women have no civil rights, but rise up against their oppressors using a newly constructed language.
More recently, Whorfianism appeared in the movie Arrival, based on the novel Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. The plot centres around a squid-like alien species, The Heptapods, that visit Earth to give humans the gift of language. Understanding their language changes our perception of time from linear to circular.
Much of the movie focuses on a linguist making understandably hard work of deciphering circular logograms. Much like Chinese, the Heptapod’s spoken and written languages vary, and aren’t phonetic. Each symbol can express a simple or a complex thought through the level of detail contained in the circle. The weight of the logogram conveys tone, and the addition of a hook makes it a question.
The challenge to the linguists was that our language, like our perception of time, is linear. Words have an order, just as time is packaged into sequential minutes, hours, and days. Neither the Heptapod’s language system nor their worldview was linear, making it difficult to understand from our perspective. The Americans eventually interpreted the language by identify the patterns. The Chinese took a very Whorfian approach and played Mahjong to learn how the Heptapods use categories.
How does language and learning relate? Here’s a can of worms probably better left unopened, but let’s crack the seal and take the briefest of peeks.
Here goes… The innate perspective proposes that some of our language is hardwired from birth. Behaviourists argue that most of our language is learned. The hypothesis testing perspective maintains we learn meaning as children by testing hypotheses. Constructivists say that learning involves language, and the language we use influences learning. Cultural relativists take a similar standpoint to linguistic relativity, proposing that languages force us to categorise experiences and see reality differently. Then, there’s the idealists, the essentialists, and the list goes on.
Oh yes, a proper orgy of annelids—just as we warned.
Put simply: do we need language to think?
Often, yes, but not necessarily. We can quickly conjure mental images and sensations that are difficult to describe using words: the sound of a symphony, the shape of a pineapple, or the smell of freshly mown grass. It’s definitely possible to consider or experience something we don’t have words for, but it certainly makes it far more difficult to share.
Are we less likely to think about things we don’t have words for, or do we lack words for these things because we don’t often think about them? This is a question that’s been infuriating thinkers for centuries. And while we don’t have a definite answer, one trend that keeps emerging is that the circular relationships involving language.
A section previous, we looked at the way language and culture is entwined. Each influencing the other, and in turn, the way we see the world. Similarly, language influences, and is influenced by, thought. So it makes sense that we’d have less words for the things we think about least, and would tend think about them less as a result.
Culture, thought, and worldview—shaping, and being shaped by, language. The four connected circularly. This notion meshes perfectly with the philosophy of linguistic relativity.
Language encodes and influences:
Linguist George Lakoff observes that the copious metaphors we use in language often provide an insight into our cultural values and how we see the world.
English speakers liken time to money, making it a valuable commodity that can be saved, spent, squandered, or invested. Other languages use different metaphors for time: size; length; made up of smaller units, or one continuous cycle. Even our perspective towards time is reflected in our language.
Language influences how we slice up reality. It determines the groups and categories we use, and how we label them.
Part of learning a language is understanding which things are seen as similar, and which are treated differently. While some categories are incontrovertibly defined by science, our cultural values dictate how we divide other things.
The English language categorises blue and green as unique colours, but this distinction is far from universal. Gendered languages arbitrarily categorise objects as either male or female. For an English speaker, these categories seem strange, but to a native speaker it’s nothing unusual. In the Mayan language Yucatec, objects are often categorised according to material rather than shape. While in English, we tend to do the opposite.
The Japanese categorise people as ‘Nihonjin’ and ‘gaikokujin’ (or ‘gaijin’). ‘Nihonjin’ means ‘Japanese person’, while the word ‘gaijin’ literally translates to ‘foreigner’. To a Japanese speaker you’re either Japanese, or you aren’t. This may be slightly offensive to an speaker of another language, until you consider that it was only relatively recently that Japan opened its borders to outsiders.
Japan today is still much less multicultural than other countries, with Japanese making up 98% of the population. In this cultural context, it makes sense that their language categorises people this way. It’s certainly seldom used with unfriendly intentions. However, in other countries it would be considered rude to call someone a foreigner based on race.
The way language forces us to categorise people provides a subtle insight into the cultural perspective on diversity.
‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.’ — Roman Jakobson
Language doesn’t limit what we’re able to think about, like linguistic determinism proposed. But it certainly influences what we’re obliged to think about.
As well as making us categorise things in certain ways, language also forces us to include certain information when we communicate. It directs our attention in different directions, shifting our focus towards specific details.
This can be influenced by cultural values, or simply the language system itself—specifically the rules that foster comprehension. Either way, because we learn language during our formative years, these considerations become second nature by the time we’re adults. We include them in communication subconsciously.
English makes us use a tense when we’re talking about the timing of an event. Past, present, or future—our language leaves no room for ambiguity. French or German forces us to specify the gender of everyone and anything involved: me, you, her, him, us, them, or it.
These inclusions are completely natural to native speakers, but utterly foreign to speakers of other languages. However, the real thrills here come from comparing the same piece of communication in different languages. The simplest message can be quite different—open to different assumptions and interpretations depending on the language being used.
Let’s say I told you about the time I had dinner with a friend. Just reading that sentence in English tells you it’s an event that’s already happened. It isn’t happening now, nor in the future. The unavoidable usage of the verb ‘had’ reveals the timing.
You don’t know, however, whether my pal is male or female. If we were chatting in French though, you would. The word for ‘friend’ would be masculine or feminine, ‘ami’ or ‘amie’. I’d have no choice but to tell you.
In Chinese, introducing my uncle is a far more detailed process than in English. Chinese encodes more information about the relationship, including which side he’s on, whether he’s related by birth or marriage, and whether he’s younger or older. You can’t choose to omit this information, speaking the language forces you to think about it, and communicate it.
Learning a language properly means learning to see the world through a slightly different lens—focusing on different details. This change in focus is enough to shift our perspective and the way we think, if ever so slightly.
Increasing evidence from researchers like Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist at Stanford University, proves how language subtly shapes the way we think, as well as the way we see the world. Oh yes, we’ve saved the best for last, friends. If you’ve any dopamine left, you’ll expend the rest below.
Each language differs in what we have to include, but also what we can leave out. They vary vastly in terms of the number of words required to communicate the same idea—dramatically showcased in English-dubbed kung fu movies of yesteryear.
German is generally considered a busier language than English, but seems perfectly normal to German speakers. Learning Mandarin requires an understanding of how much you can not say, and still be understood. And at the very end of the economy spectrum, there are certain rarely-written but spoken-daily Indonesian dialects.
In the Sumatran Riau dialect, ‘ayam’ means ‘chicken’ and ‘makan’ means ‘eat’. But ‘ayam makan’ doesn’t just mean ‘the chicken is eating.’ Oh no, it can be used to say that ‘several chickens are eating,’ ‘a single chicken is eating,’ ‘the chicken will be eating,’ ‘the chicken has eaten,’ ‘someone is eating the chicken,’ ‘someone is eating on behalf of the chicken,’ ‘someone is eating with the chicken,’ ‘the chicken that is eating,’ ‘where the chicken is eating,’ and ‘when the chicken is eating.’ Two words can cover an extensive variety of possibilities, leaving context to play a vital role in interpreting meaning.
Different languages force us to see and speak about space in quite different ways. It determines the way we describe our position and orientation, and how we give directions.
In English, we use egocentric coordinates. Yes, it’s no surprise that we think the world revolves around us. We give directions using ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘in front’, or ‘behind’, relative to our position and orientation. In contrast, about a third of the world’s languages use fixed/cardinal geographic directions. Folk in Polynesia, Mexico, Nambia, and Indonesia, would use ‘North,’ ‘South,’ ‘East,’ or ‘West’ instead. These directions remain constant regardless of which way the speaker is facing.
This is a fundamentally different way of seeing the world that filters into our interactions. Our language positions us as the centre of the world. When an English speaker points to their chest, they’re referring to themselves or their exact position. Speakers of a language that uses absolute reference frames might be pointing to a cardinal direction that happens to be behind them.
If someone greets you in Guugu Yimithirr, an indigenous language spoken by the Kuuk Thaayorre, they’d likely ask, ‘where are you going?’ The correct response would be something along the lines of, ‘north nor east, in the middle distance.’ But if you don’t know which way north is, it’s impossible to get past saying a simple ‘hello’.
Not surprisingly, around one in ten words in a typical Guugu Yimithirr conversation is ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’, or ‘west’, often accompanied by appropriate gestures. Which means speaking a language like Guugu Yimithirr properly, you don’t just need to know the words, you also need to know the cardinal directions.
Take a moment to mull this over. The language forces the speaker to remain orientated at all times: inside or outside; night or day; stationery or moving; clear or foggy; in familiar and unfamiliar locations. Without doing this, they can’t share even the most basic information. And if someone screams that a crocodile is approaching rapidly from the south west, not knowing your directions quickly escalates into a life and death scenario.
It’s more than a matter of comprehension though. Languages that force constant awareness of direction foster a profound difference in navigational ability, orientation, and spatial knowledge. If we were to learn the language, we’d likely look for clues in the environment to help us establish direction. Yet native speakers don’t pause mid-conversation and contemplate the sun—they intuitively know where north, south, west and east are, without being aware of how they do it.
For some bizarre yet unspecified reason, a speaker of Tzeltal in Mexico was allegedly blindfolded and spun over 20 times inside a dark house. Dizzy and still blindfolded, he pointed without hesitation in the exact direction he was asked to identify. He would undoubtedly dominate at piñata.
A Guugu Yimithirr speaker was documented telling friends about the time his boat capsized in stormy and shark-infested waters. He and the other person in the boat swam almost five kilometres to shore. More remarkable than their survival though, was that the man retold the story using cardinal directions.
He jumped off the western side of the boat while his companion flung himself off the east; they saw a big shark swimming north. When I’m stressed, I’m barely capable of remembering my name, let alone directions.
It gets better though. By chance, the same guy was filmed telling the same tale, years later. This isn’t the unusual part. Heck, I’ve hammered people with far less interesting stories. What was remarkable was not only did the cardinal directions match the previous footage, but the spontaneous hand gestures that indicated the direction the boat capsized also matched his unique orientation at both occasions. Retelling the story in his language meant encoding the cardinal directions as a part of the experience.
We hear stories like these and think of individuals with extraordinary abilities. But for a speaker of geographic languages, it’s entirely ordinary. It’s no supernatural gift, it’s simply language shaping what we pay attention to.
Boroditsky conducted an experiment where speakers of different languages were given sets of pictures that showed an example of temporal progression, like someone getting older. Participants were asked to arrange it in chronological order in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction.
English speakers predictably laid their cards out from left to right in front of them, egocentric, and in the same direction as their language. Hebrew speakers arranged their cards from right to left in front of them, also reflecting the direction of their language. Our old pals the Kuuk Thaayorre however, placed their cards from east to west, regardless of which way they were facing. They used spatial orientation and the path of the sun through he day to construct their representation of time.
Speaking of time…
English speakers refer to time horizontally: ‘there’s good times ahead now the worst is behind us’. In contrast, speakers of Mandarin see time horizontally and vertically. The previous month is described as an ‘up month’ and the coming month is a ‘down month’—the past is above and the future below.
In English, we see time as something that can be broken down into increasingly smaller portions: centuries, decades, years, months, fortnights, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Whorf proposed that this contributes to the feeling that time is like money: it can be saved, wasted, or squandered.
Speakers of Hopi however, see time as a continuous cycle. Days come and go—today isn’t a new day, it’s simply yesterday returning.
English speakers describe duration in terms of length: ‘a short talk’ or ‘it didn’t take long’. Whereas Greek and Spanish speakers refer to duration in amounts: ‘big’ or ‘much’.
Studies reveal that the metaphors we use make a difference to our ability to estimate duration. In one experiment, English and Greek speakers where shown shapes and objects on a screen for various durations. The English speakers were more easily confused by length. The longer a line was, the longer they thought it stayed on the screen. The Greek speakers were more often confused by amount. They guessed that fuller containers remained on screen longer than emptier ones.
However, the real thrills in the experiment came from teaching English speakers to speak about time using metaphors from other languages. They were encouraged to describe duration using size, like Greek speakers, and vertical metaphors to describe the order of an event, like Mandarin speakers. Changing the metaphor also changed their cognitive activity to resemble a Greek or Mandarin speaker.
Our language also affects how we see the future, even influencing how likely we are to save or smoke.
English is a futured (or weak-future) language, which means that we distinguish between past, present, and future. We don’t have a choice in the way we word things: ‘The weather was foul’, ‘the weather is foul’, or ‘the weather will be foul’.
These statements seem normal to us, but they aren’t worded the same in other languages. Languages like Mandarin, German, and Japanese are futureless (or weak-future); the same wording can be used to describe an event yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Instead of verbs, these languages rely on context to establish the timing of an event.
Behavioural economist Keith Chen believes that the inability of Americans to stuff cash into savings accounts compared to renowned savers like China, may be influenced by language. To prove his hypothesis, he conducted a study with all he rigour you’d expect from an economist, drawing on vast stores of data to discover considerable differences between the behaviours of futured and futureless language speakers.
Futureless language speakers were 30% more likely to save money in any given year, and saved an additional 45% compared to futured language speakers, regardless of which country they lived in.
Chen’s findings went well past money though. Speakers of futureless languages are 20–24% less likely to smoke, 13–17% less likely to be obese, and 21% more likely to use condoms. All very responsible behaviour indeed.
But, why these differences? Chen believes that in future languages, speaking about the future makes it feel further removed and less relevant to us in the present. Why sacrifice certain satisfaction today in favour of a possibility tomorrow. In futureless languages, however, the lack of linguistic distinction between present and future influences the speaker to treat them both the same.
This is a very satisfactory finding, friends. The next time I pass fists of cash to a board shaper instead of a bank teller, I’m blaming the English language.
Take a look at the following numbers: 5, 8, 3, 9, 2, 7, 4. Read them out loud, look away for twenty seconds, then say the numbers out loud again.
Now, how’d you go?
If you failed, don’t feel bad. As an English speaker, you had around a 50% chance of remembering the sequence. But if you were Chinese, reading those numbers in Mandarin, you probably would have remembered it perfectly.
The reason for this is a combination of language and memory. We store short term information in a memory loop with a duration of about two seconds. Whatever we can say or read within two seconds, we find easier to recall.
Fortunately for a Mandarin speaker, their words for numbers are remarkably short. Compare the English word ‘seven’ and the Mandarin word ‘qi’. Now imagine the time difference over seven numbers. Yes, while English speakers conduct a dexterous oral exercise regime to get through the sequence, Mandarin speakers can cram all seven numbers into the two second memory loop—making it more likely they’ll remember them.
Consider the consequences when it comes to learning maths. Four year old Chinese children can generally count up to 40. In comparison, American kids can only count to 15 at the same age. They don’t make it to 40 for another year, putting them a full year behind their Chinese pals at the most rudimentary mathematical skill.
The Mandarin numbering system also makes more sense than in English—the language is more logical. In English, we count ‘11, 12, 13’. In Mandarin, this would be ‘10–1, 10–2, 10–3’. This makes it a heck of a lot easier to learn new numbers without having to learning completely unique words with no obvious pattern. It also helps when performing basic functions like addition or subtraction. And while English speakers wrap their brain around the concept of ‘four ninths’, in Mandarin the same thing is literally said, ‘out of nine parts, take four’.
Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish languages all use simpler numbering systems, and express mathematical concepts more clearly than English. So, it’s interesting to consider the typical stereotype of Asian kids dominating at maths, while most western kids start loathing it around the third grade. By the time they reach high school, American students rank around 30th out of 65 nations, while Chinese and Korean students take the top spots.
Is it just a coincidence? Cognitive scientist Karen Fuson proposes that part of American kids’ disenchantment with maths comes from the clumsy and complicated language system. Chinese children may not necessarily be more intelligent, they simply have an inherent language advantage.
When things are easy we fight them less, which makes enjoy them more, which makes us perform better, which leads us right back round to enjoying them even more. Around and around it goes. Which leads to the logical conclusion that if you want your progeny to dominate maths, you’d best start teaching them Mandarin.
At the extreme end of easy, there’s the Piraha tribe in Brazil. Their language doesn’t even have words for numbers, they simply use ‘few’ and ‘many’. Completely unshockingly, studies show they find it difficult to track of exact quantities when dealing with large numbers of things.
Gendered languages can influence the way we perceive an object.
Psychologists asked a group of German and Spanish speakers who spoke English as a second language, to describe a series of objects in English. Interestingly, the adjectives they used reflected whether the item was male or female in their native tongue.
A key is feminine in Spanish and masculine in German. Spanish speakers described it using words like ‘golden’, ‘intricate’, ‘little’, ‘lovely’, ‘shiny’, and ‘tiny’. German speakers tended to use words like ‘hard’, ‘heavy’, ‘jagged’, ‘metal’, and ‘serrated’.
I admit my first reaction wasn’t surprise. An English speaker could listen to a German speaker reading poetry to their lover, and to our ears the guttural tones of the German language would make it seem as if the speaker were plotting the violent extermination of a flock of lamb via excavator. So, the use of brutal adjectives wasn’t overly unexpected.
Fortunately, a second question flipped the genders and cleared things up.
A bridge is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described the bridge as ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’, ‘fragile’, ‘peaceful’, ‘pretty’, and ‘slender’. Spanish speakers said it was ‘big’, ‘dangerous’, ‘long’, ‘strong’, ‘sturdy’, and ‘towering’.
In another experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to give voices to various cartoon objects. Most French speakers gave the fork (‘la fourchette’), which is feminine in their native tongue, a woman’s voice. However, the majority of Spanish speakers assigned the fork (‘el tenedor’), which is masculine in their native tongue, a man’s voice.
Awareness of genders in language can even help us learn our own gender earlier. Hebrew is a gendered language, while Finnish is not. A study found that kids who speak Hebrew are generally aware of their own gender a year earlier than their Finnish peers.
There are—to use the crude vernacular—a shitload of colours smeared across a continuous spectrum. The problem with identifying specific colours is that language isn’t continuous. We need to slice up the colour gradient arbitrarily, which each language does differently.
Obviously, it’s impossible to give every unique colour a name, though paint brands make a heroic effort. Is that Iceberg white or Polar Bear white? If you can actually tell the difference, there’s a legitimate reason for that. Studies show that our brains exaggerate the distinctions between colours, and better identify individual colours, when they have unique names.
Russian speakers have two words for blue: ‘goluboy’ (light blue) and ‘siniy’ (dark blue). An experiment revealed that they’re better than English speakers at distinguishing shades of blues close to the goluboy–siniy threshold.
Distinction between blue and green also differs between languages. English has different words for green and blue, but many languages identify them as the same colour. Similarly, speakers of the Zuñi language in Mexico don’t differentiate between orange and yellow like other languages. There’s tentative evidence to suggest they may even have more difficulty telling them apart.
In Namibia, the Himba only use five categories for colour, none of which make any sense to an English speaker. ‘Zuzu’ and ‘buru’ are both shades of blue, which seems a curious way to use two out of five words for colour. It also seems to influence how long it takes them to identify the difference between two colours that look quite different to us, but their language labels as similar.
The Dani of New Guinea could care less about colour. They have a word for dark colours and another for light colours, and that’s all the cares that they give. Studies show that while they can see the full colour spectrum, their language makes it less likely they’ll share the detail, or remember the particular colour of something later on.
They way language shapes our perception of colour raises an interesting question about how it might also cause us to interpret art differently. The Dani would certainly have a far easier time explaining a Pro Hart painting.
The language we speak can shape how we assign blame and remember actions.
If someone does something intentional, most people would assign blame using an agentive verb: ‘Dano spilled his beer’. The difference between languages occurs when something is an accident.
In English, regardless of whether an action was deliberate or accidental, we still tend to identify the person involved. Did Dano object to the taste of his beer, or spill it by accident? Who knows!
For Spanish or Japanese speaker, however, intent influences the word they use. If it was accidental, they would use a non-agentive verb, translating to something along the lines of, ‘the beer spilled itself’.
Where this gets interesting, is that identifying the person involved tends to imprint that person in the speaker’s memory.
In a series of studies, Caitlin Fausey and Lera Broditsky showed a group of English and Spanish speakers videos of people doing things like popping balloons or breaking eggs, either deliberately or unintentionally. Afterwards, participants were asked to describe the events, and identify who broke the objects.
Both the English and Spanish speakers responded similarly to the intentional actions, but showed differences to how they remembered the accidents. Even if the action was accidental, English speakers still tended to identify a person in their description of the event, and were 10% more likely to remember the person involved. Spanish speakers tended to use non-agentive verbs, and were less likely to remember who was involved.
This has potential ramifications for eye-witness testimonials, where English speakers could be more reliable than speakers of other languages, simply based on the languages proclivity towards agentive verbs. Boroditsky takes this a step further, proposing a potential correlation between the English language, and our bias towards punishing offenders rather than restituting victims.
Segueing from the law, some languages also plays a role in how we perceive facts and truth.
The language spoken by the Matses in Peru requires them to specify exactly how they know any information they’re sharing. There’s no room for hearsay or personal opinion, like in English. No, we can’t just claim that, ‘a python swallowed our dog’.
The Matses use a different verb depending on how they find out the information. Did they see the python eat the dog? Did they see the tracks and the sign of a tussle? Or did they simply assume the dog was eaten because it’s missing? Using the wrong verb and tense is considered lying.
This all gets very complicated when it comes to things that can’t be said with utter certainty at a particular time. If you asked a Matses man how many wives he has, he’s technically obliged to answer that there were three last time he checked. If they aren’t present, it’s possible that one of them could’ve run off with another man, or died in the last ten minutes. So he’s unable to report it as fact in the present tense.
If all these examples of language influencing our perspective are accurate, we’d expect bilinguals to exhibit slight differences depending on the language they use. And, there’s certainly evidence that this occurs.
There’s no shortage of self-reported evidence that bilinguals often feel like a different person when using a different language. Our art director Kenia says she changes depending on whether she’s speaking English or Spanish. I can confirm that this is quite obvious to all of us. I remember she was very civilised when she first got here, but Australian certainly has brought out the beer-guzzling bogan in her.
There’s also evidence that bilinguals change colour perception, representation of time, emotional expression, and other cognitive functions depending on the language they’re using.
In one experiment, a group composed of German speakers, English speakers, and German-English bilinguals watched a series of videos of people doing things, and were asked to describe each scene.
The German speakers tended to describe both the action and the objective. They would say, ‘a woman walks towards her car’ or ‘a man cycles towards the supermarket’. They saw the scene as a whole. In contrast, the English speakers focused on the action, rarely mentioning the objective. They tended to say, ‘a woman is walking’ or ‘a man is cycling’.
The bilingual speakers changed between perspectives depending on the language in which they were given the task. When tested in German, the bilinguals showed the same proclivities as the monolingual german speakers. However, a similar bilingual group tested in English were just as action-focused as monolingual English speakers.
In a more devious variation, bilingual participants were forced to repeat a number sequence out loud in either English or German while watching the videos. When English was blocked, participants acted like typical German speakers and described the videos in goal-oriented terms. When German was blocked, they exhibited the action-focus of an English speaker. And in a sneaky twist, when they were surprised by having to change the language they were reading in halfway through, they switched perspective as well.
Interestingly, bilinguals tend to make more rational decisions in their second language. They’re more likely to be pragmatic and less ruled by biases or emotion when thinking outside their native tongue.
Pompeu Fabra and cohorts from universities in Chicago and Barcelona conducted an experiment with 397 native Spanish speakers with English as a second language, and 328 native English speakers with Spanish as a second language. They discovered that moral decisions are often influenced depending on whether bilinguals are thinking in their native tongue.
When faced with confronting questions such as, ‘would you sacrifice the life of one person to save five?’ participants were less influenced by fear and emotion, and more likely to choose for the common good, when thinking in their second language.
So, do all these examples mean that switching languages can change our perspective? To a subtle extent—it certainly seems so.
And that’s an incredibly relevant consideration for leaders leading global teams.
By now our heads should be properly spinning with possibility. So, let’s put it all together—take all these intriguing ideas, the psychology and philosophy, and summarise it all with an distinctly business bent.
How can language drive better experiences, a better culture, better engagement and connection, and better performance?
We’ve seen how the language we use is influenced by culture, shaping the way we see and think about the world around us. In turn, this worldview then seeps back into our language.
What really quickens the pulse though, is that the same rings true for business. Our organisation is simply another culture with its own unique language. It has the ability to influence and be influenced in exactly the same way.
Press an ear to your door or raise your a above the divider and listen to the language being used at work right now. Filter the conversations about the previous eve’s karaoke debauch or Game of Thrones spoilers, and listen to the way people are talking about business.
This is the shared language of our organisation. A language that likely didn’t come straight from the brand book—it came from the people who work here, and exists because of us.
As leaders, we play a role in guiding language. Guiding—because we can’t completely control it. Like any language, it’s shaped by everyone belonging to the culture. We can’t mandate that people use certain words or phrases, they need to flow naturally through daily conversation. They have to want to use them. They need to actually mean them.
The best we can do is set the tone that echoes through the halls, offices, and factory floors. The mantras and maxims; catch cries and cultural metaphors; the stories—these all filter into everyday lexicon; are woven into the cultural tapestry. Language lives beyond brand guides and cultural strategies, it should be as obvious in the daily conversations as the external press releases and corporate communication.
Language directs our focus and improves performance in certain areas. It shapes what we pay attention towards—the things we think about. Is it quality, service, or innovation? Is it a language where safety is woven throughout, keeping it at the front of people’s mind? Is it a language that celebrates the collective to improve collaboration?
Words also set expectations and cultural permissions, which are adopted as actions and behaviours. Is our language one of aggression and competition (‘take no prisoners!’), or is it inclusive and caring (‘customers come first!’)? The simplest words seep insidious into our culture—changing the way people think and act; changing our customers’ and clients’ experiences.
Many of the public gaffs and blunders we read about in the news can be traced back to language. Enron’s excesses were no surprise when we consider the typical language used by traders: ‘we’re an aggressive culture’, ‘money is the only thing that motivates’ and ‘Rank and Yank’. It wasn’t a case of few folk who went rogue, shutting off electricity and manipulating the market. It was a shared language where leadership sent strong cultural cues about appropriate behaviour.
More recently, Uber’s culture has been beset by accusations of a competitive environment with a blind eye turned towards the naughtiness of high achievers. Maybe Uber shouldn’t ‘always be hustlin’’?
In contrast, perhaps Nike continues to lead because they ‘simplify and go’, and ‘evolve immediately’? These words naturally filter through every strategic decision and every crucial conversation.
Some words make sense as murals on a wall, but when they infiltrate daily language they can be interpreted with entirely different meanings. The work doesn’t end when the words are printed, the real work begins when they start being used.
The way we translate the brand, culture, and messaging across a global business is critical. Not literal word-for-word translations, but understanding context to dovetail the organisational values with each of the unique regional cultures. It’s not about using the same words, it’s about relevance and meaning.
Above all —our language should foster a shared sense of identity, inclusion, purpose, and belonging. If our language is siloed between departments and teams, it’s likely our culture will be divided too.
Dramatic differences in language accentuates our differences rather than our similarities. Used correctly, language can create a cohesive and consistent experience for our people and our customers…
While language shouldn’t amplify our differences, within the shared language there’s room for dialects depending on who we’re talking to.
Any large organisation is made up of people of many stripes, and sadly there’s no single way of saying things that works for everyone. The front line will never say things the same way as the C-suite. Legal will always have jargon that’s indecipherable and irrelevant to other departments.
The challenge is building a language based on cultural values, while remaining sensitive to our differences. What’s important to the people we’re communicating with? What’s relevant? How can it can be simplified?
As leaders, we must be experts in empathy—interpreting meaning and understanding preferences beyond our own. The subtlest shifts in language can help us better connect, engage, and avoid language barriers.
Oh yes, there’s power in words to inspire, influence, motivate, simplify, connect, elicit meaning and feeling, and even regulate our emotions. We can completely change the way we’re perceived, understood, and feel—simply by choosing the words we use carefully.
How do we name things? How do we categorise things? These seemingly small distinctions make a massive difference. Let’s take advantage of a language rich with nuance. Let’s go beyond vague leadership cliches like ‘greatness’ or ‘purpose’, and bland business tropes like ‘alignment’ and ‘value’. We’re capable of much, much better than that.
Language is more than simply the words we choose, it’s also in the way that we use them. Storytelling and metaphors evoke the senses—creating more compelling communication, framing the outcomes we desire, and establishing a deeper connection with our people.
Despite using the same words, written and spoken languages are very different indeed. Let’s choose the mode that’s best for our purposes, playing to their inherent advantages.
Visual languages help us transcend regional language and literacy barriers. When messages and concepts need to be understood quickly, universally, and without ambiguity, we need to make our communication more visual.
As our world spins faster, innovation is sounding well-worn, but remains at the front of every forward-thinking leaders mind. We need to stay relevant. Yet if the language in our organisation is stuck in a previous century, how does that help us forge into the future?
Like business strategy, the language we use in should continually evolve to reflect the world outside our office walls. Rather than writing them off, we should be embracing new language systems as opportunities to connect. These aren’t passing fads, they reflect the way people prefer to communicate.
Dougal Jackson, Director, Jaxzyn
Jen Jackson, Director, Jaxzyn
Barry Patenaude, Illustrator
This piece builds on the work of numerous thinkers, linguists, philosophers, and psychologists. We’ve done our best to credit research and track ideas all the way back to their original sources, but the rabbit-hole of the internet makes it difficult to know if we’ve gotten it right. If we’ve missed a name, please let us know, so we can ensure no contribution goes unrecognised.