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 language.
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 ramifications.
But the same paradigm applies: how you see, experience, talk about things and, yes, behave all depends on your vocabulary.
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 discussable.
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 language.
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.
Flickr.com photo: Tobias Mik