New Paper Reveals Relation Between Language and Company Behaviour

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A new paper written issued by the Harvard Business School discusses the relationship between the language that is spoken in a company and its influence on corporate social responsibility.

Recently, an interesting link was found between language and business – according to a new working paper published by Harvard Business School, language can influence the way people conduct business. In an article on Quartz, Max Nisen and Gideon Lichfield discuss the matter in  more detail.

Last year, UCLA economist Keith Chen published a paper about language and behaviour in the American Economic Review: according to Chen, Nisen and Lichfield say, the speakers of languages that do not (always) have a distinction between tenses save more money and smoke less, for example.

Christopher Marquis used Chen’s findings as his starting point for his research on language and business. The results? The effects of language reach beyond the individual.

According to Nisen and Lichfield, Marquis found that languages affect the behaviour of executives and the performance of companies with regard to corporate social responsibility.

Marquis believes there is a difference between weak future-tense languages – languages that can use the same grammatical structure for the present and the future (such as German) –  and strong FTR languages that cannot do this (like English). The results of Chen’s research implied that the future in strong FTR languages seems further away, which means people don’t plan ahead as much. For weak FTR languages, this is exactly the opposite, which Nisen and Lichfield suggest has to do with the fact that speakers of these language talk about the future as if it was the present.

The notion that behaviour or thoughts can be influenced by language – the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – is opposed by many.

Unsurprisingly, Chen’s study was thus met by criticism: Östen Dahl, a Swedish linguist that was one of the first to write about strong and weak FTR languages and an anti-Whorfian, claims the differences between the two kinds of languages are not that apparent. His main objection, however,  is that Chen hasn’t been able to prove a causal connection between language and behaviour.

Nisen and Lichfield state that unlike Chen, the authors of the Harvard paper have succeeded in proving this causality. Their research encompassed 1,500 companies in 59 countries, which were monitored over 12 years. These companies were divided into strong and weak FTR language companies according to their official working languages. Marquis and his team discovered that strong FTR language countries were over a quarter per cent weaker on corporate social responsibility measures. Their findings were also true for strong and weak FTR companies that held office in the same country. However, for corporations with a very international nature, companies residing in countries with a high degree of globalization or companies with very internationally experienced CEOs, this relationship was weaker.

The authors chose to focus on corporate social responsibility: because it is very future-oriented, Nisen and Lichfield say. However, the researchers think language can influence the behaviour within a company in many other fields as well. Nisen and Lichfield have no doubt that the Marquis’ paper will also be met by criticism from other academics. However, they believe it does provide management specialists with a great discussion topic!

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