Future Tense

The language your company speaks might influence how it behaves

March 26, 2014
Obsession
Language
March 26, 2014

The language we speak can have a powerful influence on how we think about time—and even how we conduct business. That’s the surprising conclusion of a new working paper from Harvard Business School.

In a paper published last year in the American Economic Review last year (pdf), UCLA economist Keith Chen found that speakers of languages that don’t always distinguish grammatically between tenses save more money, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese.

The new Harvard working paper (pdf) by Christopher Marquis and his colleagues, following Chen’s research, finds that the effect isn’t just personal; language has implications for how executives behave and a company’s performance in corporate social responsibility.

In some languages, like German and Japanese, the same grammatical structure can refer to the present and the future. For instance, a German-speaker can say Morgen regnet es (“Tomorrow it rains”) instead of Morgen wird es regnen (“Tomorrow it will rain”); both are considered correct. Chen calls such languages weak future-tense reference (FTR) languages. In strong FTR languages, like English and French, a distinct construct separating the present and future is obligatory. In the table below, the top two languages are weak FTR, and the bottom two are strong.

Future focused language

Chen suggested that speaking a strong-FTR language—which clearly distinguishes future from present—makes the future seem more distant, and thus makes people plan for it less. In a weak-FTR language, by contrast, speakers are more conscious of the future—perhaps because they can talk about it as if it were the present.

The idea that language affects behavior or thought—known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism—is controversial amongst psychologists and linguists.  Chen’s work  has come in for some criticism from Östen Dahl, a Swedish linguist who was one of the first to distinguish between strong- and weak-FTR languages (though he uses a different term for them), and who is a declared anti-Whorfian. For instance, Dahl says that the distinctions between the two types aren’t as clear as Chen makes out. But the main weakness, he says, is that Chen’s work fails to prove a causal connection between language and behavior, rather than merely a correlation.

The authors of the HBS working paper claim they’ve established causality too. They  looked at 1,500 companies in 59 countries over 12 years, splitting them into strong- and weak FTR-language companies, based on their official working language, not employees’ native languages.

What they found was that corporations in strong-FTR countries scored 26% weaker on measures of corporate social responsibility. The effect even held within a single country, Belgium, where both a strong FTR language (Flemish) and a weak one (French) are spoken. However, the relationship was less pronounced in companies that are headquartered in highly globalized countries, or are very international, or where the CEO had more international experience.

The authors chose to focus on CSR because it’s a future-oriented activity, but they suggest that language could shape a firm’s behavior in many other ways.

Other academics will doubtless find many holes to pick in the latest research. But it will give management specialists plenty to argue about.

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