It’s been a kind of background buzz in the last few years, ever present though rarely center stage: The evolution of the language businesses use to describe teams and manage employees. From excited talk of job titles like “Unicorn,” “Chief Happiness Officer” and “marketing ninja” to more serious discussions about inclusive language for a more diverse workforce, change has continued apace. Yet, even if it has rarely commanded the attention of say, the bottom line, language use does matter and understanding it through a systematic lens can be an asset in managing change and unleashing the fullest potential of your workforce. Better still? You probably already are familiar with such a systematic lens—you just may not realize it yet.
Presenting the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
You may not have heard of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but you use it every day.
In case you missed last year’s movie Arrival or this year’s book The Idiot, each of which feature it as a major plot point, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as the Theory of Linguistic Relativity, discusses the influence of language on the way people think.
There are actually two versions of the hypothesis, the “strong” and the “weak,” according to the Linguist List, an international community of linguists. “The strong version of the hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior,” explains the site.
In addition, there is a second component of the hypothesis, called linguistic relativism, writes researcher R. S. Badhesha. “The language which one is brought up in (socially exposed to and taught) is the language that that person will think and perceive the world in,” he writes.
The hypothesis itself is also the source of some controversy, particularly the strong version. “The idea that people who speak some particular language are incapable of certain kinds of thought is instinctively distasteful,” writes Josephine Livingstone in The Guardian.
Sapir-Whorf at Work
Controversy aside, it’s a pretty well-known concept, though not necessarily by that name. It’s at the heart of why that myth “Eskimos having dozens of words for snow!” crops up again and again: it’s fascinating to think that what the English language can only comprehend as a single thing might be seen as many different distinct things through the lens of another language. And indeed some cultures have different names and concepts for colors, which affects their perceptions.
There are also several books describing non-English words for which there is no equivalent in English, such as the German Schadenfreude, typically translated as “taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others.” Or, if you’re a science fiction fan, “grok” in the book Stranger in a Strange Land, which literally means “drink” but conceptually has many other meanings ranging from “love” to “hate” but which essentially boil down to a deep knowing of the other.
That’s great for popular culture, but what does it have to do with your job?
Like George Lakoff, who focuses on how language shapes political discourse, and Marshall McLuhan, who noted that “the medium is the message” and that the way we receive data influences how we perceive it, experts are pointing to Sapir-Whorf as an explanation for why we need to watch how we speak in business, especially when we’re talking to different groups.
Take the word “table,” writes researcher Badhesha, noting how the language one is brought up in colors one’s perceptions. Ask a person what they visualize when you say “table,” and they may think a dining room table, a coffee table, or a mathematical table, depending on their background. While the person who is imagining a different concept from you will eventually figure out what you mean, in the meantime they’re confused. So it’s important to look for ambiguities in your written and spoken speech to make sure people understand what you intend.
Leaders: What Do You Really Mean?
And ultimately that comes back to the question: what meaning do you intend? For business leaders, that question is highly significant for clarifying the kind of organization they ultimately want to build. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis offers a framework for leaders to consider how they might be unintentionally limiting their employees’ potential or even undermining collaboration just through the words they use.
For example, blogger Dina Leygerman takes issue with the term “working mom.” “Have you ever heard anyone call a man a ‘working dad?’ I haven’t,” she writes in Romper. “Seems almost laughable, right? Just the fact that ‘working dad’ makes us scrunch our faces and go ‘huh?’ is telling of how problematic ‘working mom’ is. Right away the mom part of ‘working mom’ bounces in the head, firing off a slew of biases and preconceived notions. People often think: unreliable, will take more time off from work, inconsistent, leaves early, maternity leave. Because language shapes our perception, ‘working mothers’ are perceived differently (and negatively) than women who work and do not have kids.”
Those aren’t the only examples of how language can undermine collaboration. For example, a number of companies refers to their IT staff as geeks, nerds, or techies – Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” and Apple’s “Genius Bar,” for example. And certainly successful people ranging from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg have made it cool to be a geek. According to Collins Dictionary staffer Ian Brookes, a geek is no longer a “boring and unattractive social misfit” and readers are “increasingly encountering the word in contexts other than computing, and with increasingly positive connotations,” writes Andrew Harrison in the Guardian.
It’s true that if you refer to your team as “geeks” or “nerds” or some equivalent, it certainly establishes their tech credentials. But what other impressions does it give of them, such as their ability to interact socially or understand business problems? In San Francisco, some workers in the tech industry even object to being called “techies,” saying it typically comes from people outside the tech industry and is associated with baggage such as being one of the newcomers that are pricing out traditional residents in the city.
Negative stereotypes associated with the words “geek” and “nerds” are also thought to make it more difficult to attract women to the IT field. “Every year, I would ask students in my year 8 class (12-13 year olds) to write down what they think it might be like to be a computer scientist,” writes Carrie Anne Philbin in the Guardian. “Answers included positive stereotypes such as high earnings and being smart, but the negative stereotypes most often put forward by the girls always outweighed the positive, such as being friendless, isolated and nerdy. The result is that currently only 17 percent of UK jobs in computer science are held by women.”
A similar situation also happens with minorities, and this is problematic when thinking about the difficulty companies have in hiring IT staff and coming up with innovative ideas. “It’s got to be hard to have the best ideas when we’re missing a huge chunk of the population,” writes Jodi Biddle in Opensource.com. “Imagine how many brilliant potential software engineers are being lost to other industries because they feel like there isn’t any space for pink high heels in IT?”
Moreover, setting one group of people aside and calling them the geeks may make it difficult for other people in the company to feel that they are competent at technology. But in this day and age, isn’t it important for everyone at the company to be fluent in technology? Do you want to give employees the impression that you have to be a genius to use computers?
It Doesn’t Have to be Hard
Regardless of the degree to which the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is actually legitimate, it can be a useful paradigm to help think about your own communication, writes Elisa Gabbert in Guernica (who goes so far as to link Sapir-Whorf to emoji as well). “What I want when I write – even in email, even on Twitter – is clarity. Language maps less sloppily to ideas than emoji map to language, but complex ideas are still difficult to explicate, even in one’s ‘native tongue,’” she writes. “You have to assign your ideas to language (or equations, or musical notation) if you want to convey them to others, but it does more than make them communicable—it seems to reify the ideas, as though we’re translating them back to ourselves, turning raw data into something we can read.”
That all may sound a bit technical, and indeed calls to change language we use every day without thinking about it often are seen as artificial or forced. But examples like the use of ‘geek’ and ‘techie’ underscore two things: One, that issues of language are unavoidable in growth areas of business, and second, that they can be easily tracked back to questions as straightforward as: ‘How do you want teams to work together?’ and ‘Do you want an easier time recruiting top talent?’
It’s easy enough to recommend that managers take the time to reflect on what their word choice communicates on a day-to-day basis. To ensure that such an initiative takes root, business leaders should raise this issue as part of top-table discussions that establish company strategy. That way, their teams can see that every conscious choice they make in language contributes to a broader set of business goals. Rather than a contrived imposition, this lens on language becomes a tool that reveals different sides of challenges and new potential solutions.
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