in Language & Culture

The Language of Success

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There’s been a fair bit of noise over the past two years about the supremacy of corporate culture over brand strategy and a lot of discussion on which is more important to the bottom line, but very little talking time has been devoted to the impact of language. Earlier this year a research study published by professors from Harvard Business School, Tilburg University, and the University of Missouri transformed the conversation by suggesting that a company’s culture may purely be a product of its native language.

Previous studies have had a very hard time studying corporate culture simply because it’s such an ill-defined and largely unquantifiable commodity, but in this latest paper, the team used corporate social responsibility (CSR) statistics as a measurable proxy. The researchers argued that high levels of CSR indicate a company culture that thinks more about the future. What they found in relation to linguistics was surprising.

The research results revealed a close correlation between certain types of language and CSR. They found that corporations headquartered in countries with languages that have a strong future-time reference – those that would say “We will make $40 next month” – focus less on CSR than those headquartered in countries where the language’s future-time reference is weak – those that would say “We make $40 next month.” The assumption is that the greater the linguistic separation between what currently is and what is to come results in a greater cognitive distance between the present and the future. That distance, the paper says, could translate to higher short-term profits but more long-term vulnerability.

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But a company’s native tongue doesn’t necessarily write its destiny. The study found that the more globalized the business, the less the impact of its native language on their near- and long-term decision-making. So a business that may have been shortsightedly focused on gains from one quarter to the next could achieve a longer-term perspective by becoming increasingly international. Conversely, the globalization process could make companies with a very long-term focus more responsive to the rapidly shifting demands of the market. It really goes to show that globalized business isn’t just opening up markets and discovering new profits; it’s opening up minds and discovering new perspectives.

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    • Hi Jeff,
      In languages such as German, Dutch, and Finnish, speakers can use present-tense and thus have a “weak future-time reference,” or simply have less linguistic separation between the present and the future. In Greek, French and English, however, events in the future must use specially marked future-tense verbs and have “strong future-time reference,” meaning there’s greater linguistic separation between now and later.