How Language Shapes Our Thought and Behavior

Language shaping
It has always
intrigued me that twenty-year olds spend hours working on core
body exercises or their biceps, watching Mad Men or listening to the White
Stripes or Kanye West. But, in spite of the ever-increasing demands upon career
in today’s world, they often fail to pick up a really good book or intelligent magazine to increase their their language skills. I suspect they’re no different than any generation, but they’re just obvious about it.

Yet cognitive scientists and rhetoricians have found
again and again, through unimpeachable research, that language shapes our
thinking and can profoundly affect our perceptions of the world. Put another
way, the language we own either limits or enhances the way we see the
interactions and events we face every day. Will my boss support me or ignore
me? Is there a difference between confidence and competence? Are you born
optimistic or is it learned? Is talent innate or developed? Surprisingly, the
vocabulary you own, more than the physical objects—the artifacts of the actual
event, determines your response to these questions.

So this little conversation will look at the issue from
both a macro-and a micro perspective.

Lera Boroditsky, a Stanford cognitive psychologist,
focuses her research on how language impacts our cognition. In other words, how
language impacts how we see and how we think. In one illustration, she writes
about a five-year old girl in a small aboriginal community in northern
Australia. When Boroditsky asks her to point north, she points precisely and
without the slightest hesitation. The compass reveals her spot-on accuracy.

Boroditsky takes the same question to a Stanford lecture
hall filled with an audience of science medal winners and genius prizes. Some
of them have been to the same room for more than 40 years. She asks them to
close their eyes—so they don’t cheat—and point north. Those who do point, take
a while to think about it, and then aim in all possible directions. Inevitably,
she gets the same results at great schools all over the world.

So a five-year-old in one culture can do something with
ease that top scientists in other cultures struggle with. Why the difference?
As Boroditsky explains, the surprising answer it turns out is language.
Different languages have different cognitive skills built into them. Indeed,
her research has found that language shapes even the most basic, the most
fundamental skills of human experience: space, time, causality and
relationships to others.

So the big picture
is that how you see and experience and talk about things all depends on your

If you take Boroditsky’s paradigm and push it down to the
micro level, we move from the discipline of linguistics to my discipline,
rhetoric. Rhetoric is the very human process of inducing cooperation. Rhetoric focuses
upon micro contexts, especially the actual, concrete language being created and
used in human interactions. Thus, business, politics and education are
ultimately rhetorical. Put it this way: there is no decision without political

But the same paradigm
applies: how you see, experience, talk about things and, yes, behave all depends on your

Some years ago I was chatting with a friend of mine, a
McKinsey consultant, regarding the lack of vocabulary for personal development.
He added an interesting notion. When we accept a job at a company, he said, one
of the first things we need to know is whether the leadership makes “fact-based
decisions.” If they lack the
vocabulary, he concluded, that means they don’t have the tools.

The need for adequate vocabulary in organizations is an
ongoing, fast moving problem. Vocabulary needs surface in all kinds of
situations. For example, when working with facilitation skills for a VP in a
major firm, I asked to sit in on one of his meetings in order to identify the
issues holding him back. In our private meeting afterward, three vocabulary
issues surfaced: air time, hierarchy and undiscussables. He was unfamiliar with
all the terminology related to team issues. So he was stumbling because he had
no vocabulary to understand and frame his difficulties. We spent a lot of time
on undiscussables, developing strategies to deal with the under-the-table shit
that was holding his team and himself back. Undiscussables, those issues,
thoughts and feelings that don’t get talked about because of defensiveness,
took him quite a while to unwind. He was eventually successful, but he had to
adjust some of his own relationships in order to make the undiscussable

Ultimately, the success of his team came down to working
vocabulary, not the technology of his team. What I’m emphasizing is that reality
is socially constructed. What he saw and was able to resolve came down to

It’s becoming obvious that business needs to flip its
mindset upside down. Harvard’s Boris Groysberg and his colleague, Michael Slind
(Talk, Inc.) are moving to that understanding when they argue that leadership is conversation. The new
paradigm is rhetorical: the keys are not in the technology, but in the
conversations and the vocabulary underlying them. And Boroditsky’s paradigm
holds even at micro levels.

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4 Responses to How Language Shapes Our Thought and Behavior

  1. Eric Bot September 25, 2013 at 12:51 am #

    Excellent stuff there, love to see somebody care about topics I feel strongly about.
    I was just working out an idea about this topic in relationships starting at the “source of all evil”, the relationship within you, where language, definition and interpretations or formulation play such a big role in how we send and receive or communicate within ourselves and the dominant effects of education, upbringing and professional environments that are disturbing this process.
    Thanks for the jump start for new inspiration.
    Have fun.

  2. Cheryl Prewitt September 25, 2013 at 3:21 am #


    Nice job on your posting; it was very insightful at first glance.

    It was interesting to learn from your blog of how through your observational/interview study and the extensive research of cognitive scientists and rhetoricians; you were able to recognize how language influences the thought processes and behavior of individuals. Moreover, how it is the language that one possesses that will either limit or enhance perceived interactions and events of everyday life, and the view of the world.

    A great job was done on articulating the various concepts of how depended upon the vocabulary that one owns will determine their response to various questions; how different languages offer distinctive cognitive skills inherently; and how language shapes the most basic, fundamental skills of human communication and experiences.

    Dan, while the various concepts mentioned may be precise in their own nature, have you considered the true relevancy of language is a means of communication? Have you considered because there are multiple forms of language, having no single universal language; the ability for one to own effective communication skills far out weights his/her ability to increase their language skills? What is your perspective of the concept that language skills are enhanced by increased experiences, the awareness of different cultures, and learned? In shaping one’s thoughts and behavior, should language be the primary focus or is it a mere ingredient to effective communication?

    Again, nice job on your posting, it was very insightful at first glance. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Viviane Harnois September 25, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    Dear Dan,
    Very interesting article on a topic close to my heart as well.
    Organizations today have a “standard working vocabulary ” which I believe is destructive to trust, relationships, teamwork, etc….
    Examples: division (for various business units), downsizing, rightsizing, outplacing, human capital, etc..
    Synergies which is a positive word for potential uptick of performance in mergers has now come to mean the number of people to be layed off, i.e. a word with a negative connotation.
    And it seems to me that this vocabulary is now found around the world.
    Thank you for this article.

  4. Sue Ambler September 25, 2013 at 11:54 am #


    I appreciate your comments and perspective. As a company in the state of Washington who has been recognized for two consecutive years as One of the 100 BEST companies to work for in Washington (Seattle Business Magazine), we have all generations represented on staff. We utilize books in our team building and I find the 20 something’s are of the first to recommend great reads with diverse vocabulary. Maybe we are just hiring the best and most bright. I don’t think so, it is a culture of inclusion and acceptance where we embrace all forms of reading whether it be research, journal articles, books or social media. So much to be learned from everyone when we give others a chance.

    This morning I heard Dr. Donna Beegle, Communication Across Barriers at a local United Way event. She suggested that those who live in poverty often have not had the opportunity to learn vocabulary, therefore are viewed as not as smart or tested for Special Education. #UWSCSpirit, just a thought.