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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Powerful Words and Behavior

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How important are words? Do words have the power to shape our thinking or are they nothing more than a reflection of what our minds are already processing, giving substance to existing abstractions floating in our heads? That is the essence of a debate that has gone on now for more than 100 years. Think for a minute of the words we use to describe numbers, one, two, ten, fifty. Are we naturally inclined to develop words to describe numbers? Do the words themselves, the words that we have made up to signify quantities give us the ability to think both abstractly and concretely about numbers, or is the ability to think numerically built into the structure of our brain? Said another way, is the ability to think logically about quantities an inherent ability, independent of language, and the words we have developed simply an expression of that ability or do the words shape our ability to think in a numerical sense?  

There is a tribe from Brazil, the Pirahã, who have no word for the number one or any other exact quantity. This is apparently the first group ever studied that has no concept for the number one. A new study undertaken demonstrates that the Pirahã can still convey quantity somewhat but are essentially using words that mean few, some and more. Other researchers contend that the words they are using mean one, two and many. In either case in Pirahã society the need for being able to quantify things precisely and hence develop a language system that allows for that was not a cultural priority.  

As strange as you might find it, that there is a society without words for specific numbers, remember that the first evidence for the use of the concept of zero is from the Sumerians in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago. From there it traveled to the Indus Valley, and was used in Hindu society. In the Indus Valley it was picked up by Arab merchants and became very important in their trade and spread throughout Arab society. The Greeks only occasionally used the concept and Romans had no concept of zero (for those of you who remember Roman numerals try writing zero). On the other side of the globe the Maya independently invented their own version of zero. The concept of zero slowly migrated around the world and did not make it into European society until the late middle ages, as Europe was stubbornly holding on to the use of the Roman traditional counting system rather than adopting new methods. So while we take zero for granted today, it is a relatively new concept for western culture.   

Do words shape our thinking? One urban legend states that Eskimos who live in snowy places, and hence deal with snow more regularly than most of us have developed many more words than exist in English to describe types of snow. That is apparently not true. First off Eskimos are not a unitary people and of the many groups that consist of Eskimos, many different languages exist. Second the language structure of these groups is different, allowing for combinations that do not exist in English, making comparison between the numbers of words that exist to describe snow very difficult. They may or may not have a few more words than in English to describe snow but it is certainly not hundreds as the urban legend claims.  

There are words that have been consistently used to reinforce messages of hatred, words that need no repetition here. Those words tend to be used over and over to denigrate others within societies around the world. Does the constant use of words of hatred reinforce the pattern of biased and bigoted thinking within the minds of those who use them or are they simply an expression of what is already there? Clearly some believe that words of hatred create beliefs and behaviors of hate, as there are school children in various locations who are learning the vocabulary of hatred and to hate as part of their daily lessons. But what then happens to these children later on? Can they ever put the hatred aside once it becomes part of what they are, part of their essence? The future for the majority of children who grow up on hatred looks very bleak and greatly saddens me.

There is a raging debate going on about the vocabulary of rap music. Words that denigrate are built into the lyrics of certain performers. These words perpetuate negative stereotypes but are rationalized as somehow being ok since they are coming from within a community. I can’t agree with this at all. I strongly believe in first amendment rights but people should be aware of what they are doing and the implications of the choices they make. Words of hate will have hateful results – regardless of the source. Just as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech, yelling out hate filled words for mass distribution should not be protected speech as well.

Stringing together words of hatred into sentences can produce what some would call jokes. Jokes made at the expense of others, jokes that denigrate others for being different or being perceived as a threat to those giving word to those statements of hatred, hatred couched in supposedly humorous terms.  

Each organization also has a vocabulary, words that they use in their day-to-day operations. (I am not talking about acronyms.) How important are the words that get used in our organizations? They can be no less important than the impact that words have in our everyday lives and in our shared histories. Developing unique organizational vocabularies that allows for both abstract reasoning and concrete discussions on the issues critical to the organization’s success may give an organization a competitive edge. Unique vocabularies, ways of expression may allow the organization to consider concepts and ways of working that competitors are unable to replicate. Words are important, they have power and they have impact and they should be used with care. People when speaking for themselves need to choose their words with care. People when speaking on behalf of organizations need to choose their words with care as well.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 21, 2009 at 7:56 am

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