Exploring the Balance between Language and Behavior

Language, dialect & non-verbal communication can tell us a lot about an individual. These impressions can be as evident as where someone grew up and their cultural background, to the less implicit speculations like how highly educated someone may be or their socioeconomic class. But have you ever heard of language determining whether we’re more likely to engage in certain behaviors like smoking, saving money, exercising or using condoms? Economist Keith Chen set out to explore this connection in a recent study and the results might surprise you.

Chen’s findings caught my attention in a recent article from The Atlantic. Chen set out to analyze whether speakers of languages without strong future tenses tend to be more responsible about planning for the future, and thus more likely to save money, avoid smoking, exercise and use condoms. Sounds a bit lofty, right?

To better understand Chen’s findings, we first need to wrap our minds around what makes a language strong or weak future tense. Strong future tense languages have a grammar structure that is more definitive in speaking about future actions. For example, in a strong future tense language like English, we would say “I will go to the store tomorrow” but in Chinese, a language that has a weaker future tense, you would say “I go to the store tomorrow”. Weak future tense speakers treat the future and present as grammatically equal. This led Chen to postulate that weak future tense speakers are more thoughtful about the future and thus are less likely to take part in behaviors that could negatively impact their future.

This claim may seem like a reach, but when Chen mapped stronger and weak future-tense languages across Europe and correlated the data with future-oriented behaviors like saving, smoking and using condoms, there was a common thread. Weak future tense speakers were shown to be more responsible when it came to engaging in behaviors that could potentially jeopardize their future. The study was reconstructed and the data reviewed by critics of Chen’s study, the same findings remained:

Speakers with weak future tenses (e.g. German, Finnish and Estonian) were 30 percent more likely to save money, 24 percent more likely to avoid smoking, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese, than speakers of languages with strong future tenses, like English.¹

Chen also compared speakers born and raised within the same countries and found the same results.

Speakers with weak future tenses demonstrated dramatically, and statistically significantly, more responsible future-oriented behaviors — even within countries like Switzerland, which has a diverse makeup of strong-future languages (like French) and weak-future languages (like German).¹

So what does all of this mean and how do we use this information? Even Chen remarks on his findings with astonishment and disbelief. One important thing he points out is that we should consider whether language is driving these behaviors or merely reflecting the deeper cultural differences that drive behavior. Are Americans worse at saving money because we’re Americans or because of our grammar?

There has to be some balance between language and cultural values that work hand-in-hand to impact our behavior, but my believe is that Chen’s findings are more reflective of the cultural differences that drive our behavior. It could also be argued that behavior plays an equal, or even greater, role in shaping language and values.

From a marketer’s perspective, reading this article left me with all sorts of questions. Chen’s findings are shockingly remarkable, but what do we do with it? Do you think Chen’s findings are useful from a marketing or business decision standpoint, particularly for an organization that must position their brand or product for global audiences? How do you think this information could be used?

The video below illustrates Chen’s study and findings, created by Fractl, the creative team for eBay Deals.

To read additional details on this study, you can find the original article from The Atlantic here.

Read Keith Chen’s complete paper here.

¹Derek Thompson, “Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits? The AtlanticSeptember, 10, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com

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