Thinking Out Loud: Language Affects How We Think

From the film Coach Carter

What differentiates athletes from winning or losing? Mentality. Your mindset has everything to do with your success. The coaching profession originated in sports. Think of Coach Carter motivating his basketball team to make that winning shot. It is reasonable that what you say, outloud and inside has an impact on what you think and your behavior. If I say something negative outloud to myself, I will probably believe it to be true.

Lera Borositsky’s TED talk on how language shapes your thinking is reflective of many issues companies and leadership face in today’s world. As she signed off Borositsky said “What thoughts do I wish to create.” You have control over your thoughts. Often when you have thoughts, certain feelings arise from them. When you are running and need to push yourself the extra mile, your self talk will define if you will do it or not. Borositsky also asks “how could I think differently?”. Well, shifting thinking is used often in leadership and personal development to raise performance. For example, through reframing failures to learning experiences, resilience is increased. A key leadership trait.

Cognitive diversity is a DEI concept thrown around, what it actually means is there is a range of perceptions and viewpoints in the room because of the experience of gender, cultural or general perceptions. Language shapes your thinking and insights in a deep, subconscious way. The example raised in the talk was if a word is masculine and feminine in latin languages it affects the way something is described. For example, in German, a bridge is given a feminine article, while Spanish uses masculine, this influences German speakers to describe a bridge using typically feminine words. Think words like beautiful etc. While, Spanish speakers will use more masculine language to describe the bridge. Think strong and sturdy. What this means in the Inclusion and Diversity world is diversity of language means diversity of thought. A business problem seen by two different people speaking different languages will result in a difference of perspective. This is at the heart of cognitive diversity, knowing that we can gain insight to a problem or issue through cultural experience and knowledge.

On the flip side of this, it can also spark cultural bias. In your subconscious, you have deep embedded thoughts, sometimes originating in language. Language is your communication tool. So, if language and your expression of ideas impacts your way of thinking, this has implications for your cultural biases. An example of this is how different languages have different constructions, which in turn highlights or conveys different meanings. So, in English when an accident occurs, we say ‘he or she broke xyz’. But, in Spanish they would say ‘xyz broke’. In English speakers’ minds, this results in remembering who was involved in an accident, but Spanish speakers will remember the intention or consequence of the accident. What this means is that when your baby brother broke your toy by accident, you think it’s his fault as an English speaker. The effect of this on your perceptions of events is significant. What does this mean for cultural biases you hold? Well, often biases are deep rooted, and if your perception of an event is formed by the way you speak, you notice different information that others may not and highlight that in your mind. Imagine the effect this has on mindsets and in the boardroom, team meeting or business decisions.

As a Diversity and Inclusion and leadership specialist, I am constantly looking at how people think and communicate differently. With cultural biases, how are decisions made in the workplace. The way language innately affects your way of thinking shows how businesses can regarding cognitive diversity and the relation to cultural identity.

Another area brought up by Borositsky was that not all cultures order things like the West does. In the West, time is usually ordered from left to right, the way that we read. But, in somewhere like Israel, where you read Hebrew from right to left, time is shown to be ordered in the same way. Would you have considered that before reading this article? That suggests that you made a cultural assumption. In the same way most things are built for right handed people, often things are created in the international sphere for Western thought as a de facto mode of being. Bet you won’t see a left handed pair of scissors the same way again. Your language conducts what you make sense of. Your culture orders information so it makes sense to you. So, how do we push ourselves out of this pattern? Developing self-awareness. By exploring alternate ways of viewing simple day to day tasks you can often push yourself out of your comfort zone, creating a higher level of self-awareness.

What assumptions do you make about other cultures or yourself, based on your cultural experience and identity? Western centric ideas usually take up most of the global conversation. If you are looking at developing your leadership skills, self awareness is a good place to start. By raising your self awareness you can identify patterns of thinking that could be repeating the same outcomes. By looking at you think automatically about the world, events and people you could be welcoming different outcomes in your personal and professional environment.

You can watch the full TED talk here .

Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st century. Her latest initiative, GPS GO, is a unique program empowering millennials to find their inner coordinates and harness their leadership abilities, with the larger social dynamics in mind. Follow GPS GO on Instagram (gps_go_) for mindful musings and updates!

A talent management strategist, board advisor and executive coach to CEO’s, specialised in Diversity and Inclusion