The Scary Way that Our Language Affects our Behavior

If I told you that someone from China was 31% more likely to have saved money in any given year than your average American, and to have accumulated 39% more wealth in total by retirement, what reason would you give?

If you are like me, your mind will have instantly jumped to the vast cultural differences between us. We’re more materialistic, less group-focused, and more interested in self-promotion (to name a few stereotypes). On the surface these all seem like they could be valid contributing factors to the above statistic.
But what if I told you that that statistic was really comparing groups of countries, not just the U.S. vs China? And that those groups are extremely diverse?

Here are some of their members:

Group A: China, Sweden, Germany, Japan, Finland, Netherlands
Grup B: Greece, Israel, U.S., U.K., Italy, Korea

Now what if I expanded that statistic and said that members of group A are also 24% less likely to smoke,  29% more likely to be physically active, and 13% less likely to be medically obese?

Suddenly it becomes far more difficult to explain all of these away via particular cultural differences. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The Curious Effect of Language

The economist Keith Chen was able to explain these differences quite succinctly in his 2013 paper through an analysis not of the cultures involved but of the languages. Specifically, he looked at how the different languages went about grammatically marking future events.

The example that he gives is how different languages would go about predicting rain. A German speaker would say “Morgen regnet es,” which translates to “It rains tomorrow.” This is noticeably different from how an English speaker would have to say “It will rain tomorrow” or “It is going to rain tomorrow.” This type of grammatical behavior is referred to by linguists as future-time reference (FTR).

Through a computerized analysis of online text, Chen was able to characterize a large number of different languages as either weak-FTR (Group A), or strong-FTR (Group B).

Now think: what do all of the above statistics have in common?

They all reference behaviors that require difficult actions in the present to yield a benefit in the future.

Chen describes his theory as follows:

“In this paper I test a linguistic-savings hypothesis: that being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. This hypothesis arises naturally if grammatically separating the future and the present leads speakers to disassociate the future from the present. This would make the future feel more distant, and since saving involves current costs for future rewards, would make saving harder. On the other hand, some languages grammatically equate the present and future. Those speakers would be more willing to save for a future which appears closer.”

It is definitely possible that there are also cultural differences coming into play with regards to these behaviors. You could even posit that some of the linguistic differences may have arisen from the cultural rather than the other way around.

However, through the use of cultural surveys and a careful statistical analysis Chen is able to show that the data1 doesn’t quite behave as if the two were fully correlated. There is something else going on that is distinctive to the language itself, operating at a different level of our psyche.

This of course begs the question: Should we all start learning Chinese to teach to our children? Or at least German?

Ladyboys in Thailand

Well that came out of left field didn’t it?

Don’t worry- I promise it’s actually a related topic.

The Background

Ladyboys (or ‘transgender women,’ or ‘Kathoey’, but they actually prefer to be called ‘ladyboy’) are everywhere in Thailand. You see them on the streets, in the bars, putting on shows, or even leading tours.

They tend to be proud, flirtatious, and totally open about every aspect of who they are.

My tour guide, “Miss Thailand” was full of such delightful quotes as:

“When visiting the monkeys without food, you have to cross your legs when you walk, otherwise they’ll try to steal your banana and run away with it.”

Her: “You from states? How long you are?”
Him:”Two weeks”
Her: “No, how loong?” Points down.

Me together with my tour guide Jennifer, or "Miss Thailand
Me together with my tour guide Jennifer, or “Miss Thailand

But why is it like this in Thailand and almost nowhere else?

Here are the top three answers that I was able to get:

  1. It has to do with the large prostitution industry spawned by the hundreds of thousands of United States soldiers passing through during the Vietnam war.
  2. 95% of Thailand is Buddhist. In Buddhist scriptures there are actually three genders referenced, and which one you are is just seen as another facet of your karmic lot. This leads to little to no cultural stigmas around transgendered individuals.
  3. In the Thai language most pronouns used to reference others are gender neutral. The same “khun” is used as a formal “Mister” or “Miss,” “pee” is used to reference an older brother or sister, and a similar pattern is found in many other locations. Conversely, at the end of every single sentence a man will add the word “krap” and a woman will add “ka.” These words have no meaning other than to add politeness and to indicate gender. This leads toward a general perception of gender being self defined.

This third explanation is the one that started me thinking about this entire topic. The fact that the structure of the language we speak can have such a strong impact on the ways that we think and behave really makes me start to think about a part of our lives that we all just take for granted. Maybe there are some benefits to a man-made language like esperanto beyond just ease of learning. Could we come up with a brand new language designed to give maximum benefit in every aspect of life?

And how do elvish and klingon compare?

  1. Yes, I used data as a singular. Deal with it.