What we are seeing in the world of our 21st Century globe is a new appreciation of the interplay between culture, language and cognition. We see the world differently from men and women in other cultures, not only because we have had different past experiences, but also because our language influences the ways in which we see and think (cognition) and, therefore, the ways in which we interpret and engage in our world. A gentleman-scholar, Benjamin Whorf, noted many years ago that language influences cognition (Strong Whorf) or at the very least reflects differences in cognition (Weak Whorf) within specific cultures. For instance, we tend to be much more specific in designating (labeling) phenomena that we tend to value. Whorf uses the example of the many words for snow in many Inuit (Eskimo) cultures.
We can similarly point to the multiple words for love (e.g. “agape,” “eros” and “philia”) in Greek cultures, as compared to the use of a single word (“love”) in English. Does this mean that English-speaking people tend to place less value on love then members of Greek societies or that the Greeks see something in the dynamics of loving relationships which we in English-speaking societies don’t see? Or are these conventions of language merely byproducts of two different linguistic systems that have created words to describe differing social conditions (for example, a greater emphasis on friendships or reverence for some deities). Put simply, which comes first the word or the phenomenon being labeled?
This interplay between language, cognition and culture is relevant not only for our understanding of cross-cultural communication problems, but also for our better understanding of the communication challenges being faced within 21st Century organizations. There are highly influential sub-cultures operating within our organizations and each of them uses language in a different way and their use of language reflects and reinforces important differences in the perspectives and values held by those who live and work in these sub-cultures. Furthermore, as we come to realize (in postmodern fashion) that organizations are really nothing more (and nothing less) than extended conversations, the role to be played by language and its impact on cognition becomes even more important.Download Article 1K Club