How language shapes the way we work?

Photo of David Shankbone.

Photo of David Shankbone.

In a recent commentary, industry magnate Richard Branson said: “I am a big believer in the power of language to change the world. The way we communicate, whether verbally, digitally or physically, has a massive effect on how we work, live and learn.” He talks about his fascination with words: the way they could mean many things for many people, the way they come to exist and how they “define” our mood.

Indeed, words affect our mood — and much more: our ability to recall past events, our behaviour and our opinion, too.  They can even implant false memories! In the famous Loftus-Palmer experiment researchers have shown a group of students short films of traffic accidents. The students were then asked a question where the verb was manipulated: “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted each other?” The research has shown that the estimated speed of the cars was greatly affected by the verb used in the question. In the follow-up experiment, where the students were exposed to manipulated questions, those who were asked “How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?” were much more likely to recall seeing broken glass then those whose question contained the word hit.

Our memory can be distorted by strategic use of language, but so can be our behaviour. In their famous study, Bargh, Chen and Burrows have discovered what later became to be known as the Florida effect: the effect words can have on our subconscious, and consequently on our behaviour. In the experiment two groups of students had to assemble four-word sentences from a set of words. For one group of students the pre-set words contained expressions related to old age:  forgetful, bald, wrinkle, grey, sentimental, worried, lonely, bingo  and the famous  Florida. The other group had random word selections. When students finished their task, they had to go to another lab: unknown to them that this journey was the real purpose of the experiment. Researchers measured the time it took for the two groups of students to cover the distance, and —lo and behold— those exposed to vocabulary related to the elderly walked  significantly slower than the others.

And this story doesn’t end there: words can seriously affect how we view the world and the opinion we form about it. In a recent experiment, for example, students tested how words related to migration sway public opinion. Participants in the study were randomly asked whether they agree or disagree that Britain should allow more migrants from Syria to come and live in the UK OR  whether they agree or disagree that Britain should allow more refugees from Syria to come and live in the UK? The results have shown that there was a statistically significant difference in the responses influenced by the word choice in the question — those exposed to the word refugee  were in favour of a more open, inclusive immigration policy.  And, of course, these were relatively neutral expressions related to immigration: the real damage lies in those that conjure images of imminent danger, such as hordes or swamp.

Words are really powerful — no wonder more and more business leaders take greater notice. As Branson says: “In business, language is often used as a weapon. Sharp-suited  businesspersons can try to intimidate with complicated wordplay and hide behind acronyms, when all that is needed is simple terms to explain the issues. I always stop people who are overcomplicating things and ask them to put it in plain terms. If they can’t, what they are talking about is probably not worth the trouble. The same goes with business pitches – if you can’t explain it on the back of an envelope, it’s probably rubbish”.

Greater notice, however, doesn’t always mean better notice. Words can only become weapons if they are used effectively — and the only way to achieve this is by understanding how language really works. Linguistics, that is.