People who speak Finnish and Mandarin are more likely to save more, practice safer sex, and weigh less than those speaking English and Greek. That’s according to Yale Professor and Behavioral Economist M. Keith Chen who discovered that languages affect how people feel about the future. English, for example, requires people to emphasize past, present, and future. For example, an English speaker might say, “Yesterday it rained,” “It is raining, and ‘Tomorrow it will rain.’” In contrast, a Chinese speaker “can say, ‘Yesterday it rain,’ ‘Now it rain,’ ‘Tomorrow it rain.’”
Since, future-oriented languages condition their speakers to feel the future is distant, they have less incentive to sacrifice in the present to obtain future benefits than their counterparts who speak “futureless” languages. For example, on average, they retire with 25 percent less in savings than those counterparts. Now, you might be thinking that this hypothesis this is incredible or, to use the word Chen employed his TED talk, “fanciful,” However, we assure that Chen marshals convincing evidence. His argument is compelling. Moreover, Chen demonstrates the power of language to influence behavior and shape attitudes.
His thesis is uniquely relevant to D&I professional and corporate leaders, because it carries a message that’s central to all of us: the words we say often are not what our listeners hear. Of course, we all understand the importance of lucid communication, and many of us have suffered the consequences of missteps. However, it is difficult for most of us appreciate fully the destructive, power of the hidden messages and insinuations our words carry.
In example, some of us are still uncertain of the appropriate ways to talk or about the transgender community and people of other cultures, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Even people in these groups are sometimes unsure of what term they prefer. Slate culture writer Aisha Harris discussed her struggle to decide between black or African-American. Although her father encouraged her to use African-American to honor her ancestral roots, she chose “black,” because “it acknowledges the similarities that do extend to all black people. In spite of our differences—as black people: the prejudices we can face from nonblacks (from police brutality to skewed standards of beauty) to the cultural influences we share with one another, like the aesthetic notion of “black cool” traced to West Africa and translated more recently into black American.”
At Jonamay Lambert & Associates, we are exploring the subtle and subconscious ways word choice and how we speak can confuse, offend, and discourage others. More importantly, we are investigating how to use language to promote an inclusive workplace, inspire employee engagement, and enhance our personal brands. We are gathering expert ideas and developing resources on effective communication. Here are some of the resources we are developing and issues we are pursuing:
- A glossary of terms to use and other to avoid and how to reference people who are different from us and why (e.g. Why are Latino and Asian preferable to Hispanic and Oriental?).
- An overview of how to communicate respectfully to the transgender community.
- Review of new research on how our subconscious impacts our responses to language and how this knowledge can help us become more effective.
- How to avoid words that communicate weakness or uncertainty (e.g. “I believe” implies confidence while “I think” suggests indecision).
- The differences between active and passive voices, why active voice is generally more effective than passive, and when to use passive voice (The Nike slogan “Just do it” is active; “It is what you should just be doing,” is the slogan in a passive voice.).
In the coming months, we will continue to explore these and many more ideas and concepts, focusing on meeting your needs. We will share them in appropriate formats, such as white papers, webinars, presentations, or other communication vehicles. We are excited about this venture and hope you will find our efforts useful to you.
Who knows, maybe Dr. Chen’s research will help us all become better communicators and happier people in the process.
 N Chen, M. Keith, “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets,” American Economic Review 2013, 103(2): 690-731 (Last accessed February 4, 2018). http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty/keith.chen/papers/LanguageWorkingPaper.pdf
 Chen, “Could your language affect your ability to save money?” TEDGlobal 2012, June 2012 (Last accessed February 4, 2018).
 Harris, Aisha, “Where I’m From: How a trip to Kenya changed the way I think about the terms African-American and black American,” Slate, July 29, 2014
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