All Change is Linguistic

That title is lifted from Peter Block, and I want to make sure credit is given where credit is due.

I think those four words are wonderfully meaningful and I want to add my own take on it (any flawed interpretation is all mine, not Block’s). It has to do with a larger question: the relationship between thinking and doing.

Do Thoughts Drive Actions, or Do Actions Drive Thoughts?

This is not some abstraction. It matters greatly to businesses whether you can better think your way into right action, or act your way into right thinking.

For example: can you better train for soft skills via role-playing, or through readings and multiple-choice quizzes? Are pick-up lines best practiced in a bar? What about sales pitches?

So, do thoughts drive action or does action drive thoughts? The proper answer is ‘yes.’ Actually ‘yes, but it depends.’ Proving causality of anything is an impossibility, much less proving proportional causality. But in the commonsense world we all live in, we can see that the arrow points both ways. The only useful question is: when does it point which way?

Acting Your Way Into Right Thinking

This is the kind of phrase you hear in 12-step programs, or from motivational speakers, or—interestingly—lean management. It usually means, “You’ve been kidding yourself all these years by talking a good game; when are you actually going to [quit drinking] [lose weight] [ask her out] [practice what you preach]."

You also hear it in HR groups, advocating for certain kinds of change management: “You’ve been kidding yourself all these years by talking a good game; when are you actually going to [go to the networking meeting] [hire someone not a mirror image of us] [actually promote on values].”

Seems to me these are typically situations where ‘whole body’ involvement is required. You can’t just isolate one aspect of a situation, but rather you have to engage physically and emotionally in a full sense.

When Thinking Drives Action

Does that mean thinking works better in small, focused change efforts? Yes, but that’s only part of the story. For example, visualization is used by athletes to tweak the mindset, or attitude—before a golf swing, before a marathon. 

But there’s another sense in which thinking drives action: it dates back to Aristotle, who suggested there is a steel cable leading from thinking to doing.

Aristotle has his modern counterparts in NLP theorists, change specialists and neuro-everybodies who all point to the semi-conscious inclination of the brain to create beliefs, assumptions, habits, instincts—and then to act on them. 

How do you drive thoughts? Some tried-and-true methods include message-repetition (depending on your perspective, this equates either to propaganda or to staying ‘on message’), linkage (‘Marlon Brando smoked, it must be cool’), or authority (‘my doctor recommends it, it must be good for me’). You may think that in this day of digital social media we are immune to direct mail and tv ads from Madison Avenue—wrong, wrong, wrong, the same techniques are here, just in new clothing.

All Change is Linguistic

Full circle back to Peter Block. One of the most profound ways we have of unconsciously altering mindsets and attitudes is through language. Most overtly, Big Message repetition uses language. Chant “Obama was born abroad” enough times and you’ll get 20-30% of the US public to believe it.

But it isn’t just the denotation of words that drives change. It’s the emotional tone as well. The language of etiquette and empathy drives reciprocity—the most important form of influence, according to Robert Cialdini. The tones in which such words are said also add influence. Even the vocabulary of differing languages (French vs German) convey differing meanings to those who hear them.

To Think? Or To Behave?

If you’re wondering whether to change people or organizations, the usual answer is ‘both.’ But it does make sense to lead with one or another depending on the situation. 

The power of frequent close, personal, physical interaction—in schools, in the military, in marriage—probably does more to tear down racial barriers then any educational program. Better language constructs will follow.

But if you’re trying to get people to behave rightly in a corporate merger, for example, slogans are your friend—lead with language like ‘make a friend first,’ or ‘the first word in merger is ‘me,’ or ‘no more old-company name.’  

Whether you start with the behavior or the language, you’ll get to both. All change is linguistic, sooner or later.

7 replies
  1. Coach Jacqui Dobens
    Coach Jacqui Dobens says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your post! Napoleon Hill, in his timeless classic "Think and Grow Rich" wrote of the power of emotionalized words. In addition, he shared the power of auto suggestion via repition. Traditional ad agencies use emotion filled copy and repition to convince us of a feeling using their particular brand. I won’t mention the brands here suffice it to say I’ll admit getting teary-eyed when a big brother returned home from college and made coffee for his parents, selected an auto insurance carrier because I felt I would be in capable hands, I thought a particular brand of soup was good because their catchy jingle told me so and as I sang it well after the commercial was over I told my self.

    Thanks for sharing your post really made me think!


    Coach Jacqui Dobens

  2. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, what a delightful surprise to find a reference to Ethnologia Europaea: Journal of European Ethnology in a business blog. You’ve made my day!

    (I read the page you linked to, and kept reading. Fascinating stuff. And it has got me thinking about the implications of the contemporary (orchestrated) rise of Volkskultur in the US.)

    Most of your readers are probably aware that the idea that the language you speak affects your thoughts, or the linguistic relativity principle,  was most famously raised by American Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930’s, but the idea has come under attack in recent years, and some of Whorf’s own work was debunked by later researchers. (See also, Whorfianism.)

    BUT, this month three Harvard researchers released a study that stirs up the debate: their research with French-Arabic bilinguals in Morocco and Spanish-English bilinguals in the US shows that switching languages can shape preferences. (Read about the study at Harvard Science or slightly more skeptical account at The Economist.) The Harvard Science article concludes that Whorf’s idea, when not caricatured, may generate interesting hypotheses that researchers can continue to test.

    The idea of linguistic relativity has very interesting implications for building trust in mutlilingual workplaces, as well as for the choice of Spanish vs English in US consumer and political advertising. To go back to the example in your post of a corporate merger, the language a manager delivers those slogans in may have a significant impact on their effectiveness.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    "the language you speak affects your thoughts…" (Shaula)

    Hmmm…I would also add the language you speak affects your emotions which affect your thoughts, which…

    Over the years I’ve coached a number of folks in Europe and Asia around work, career, and relationships. areas.

    It often happened that these clients were working with issues around which they had an emotional charge. As such they would first begin to disclose their issues in English and then I suggested, when it felt appropriate, to "say it in your native language." Often their perspective changed, and quite often dramatically…from soft to highly charged, from angry to peaceful and vice versa, from conflictual to cooperative; from victim to aggressor…when they were discussing themselves and the folks they were relating to. Too, many would react with a "hmmm, I never knew I felt that way…" or some such after the exercise.

    The interplay between thoughts and emotions.  Yes, words are "loaded." When we hear that the Eskimos have 10-15 words for "snow" it makes thoughtful and emotional sense.

  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Peter, your multi-language work with clients sounds marvelous. What a great insight to have brought to your clients.

    (You might not want to quote the "Eskimo words for snow" chestnut, though, as it is a falsehood that has been reified in the annals of received wisdom. Here’s a good overview of the Eskimo words for snow hoax, and here’s a good explanation of the linguistics that give rise to the Eskimo snow words confusion. And as a separate issue, the word Eskimo itself is deprecated–in Canada at least (I don’t know about other parts of the world) the word can be as offensive as saying "nigger" is in the US; the term Inuit is used instead. If you are looking to refer to Inuit and Yupik people collectively and globally, then the only universally non-racist term I’m aware of is just that: Inuit and Yupik.)

    I find it very easy to imagine people saying "I never knew I felt that way", which sounds like (part of) the huge value of your work.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Shaula, ok…how about Spanish words for snow…(just a start…) point remains…

    Words and phrases for snow and related phenomena:

    • el agua nieve, el aguanieve: sleet, rain mixed with snow
    • copo, copo de nieve: snowflake
    • la cornisa de nieve: cornice
    • el chubasco: intense snow shower
    • la conchesta: large snowdrift
    • la cubiera de nieve: snow cover
    • cubierto de nieve: snow-covered
    • el cúmulo de nieve: snowdrift
    • la escarcha: frost
    • escarchado: covered with frost
    • el glaciar: glacier
    • la granizada: hailstorm
    • el granizo: hail, sleet, hailstone
    • el granizo blando: soft hail, graupel, snow pellet
    • la helada: frost
    • helado: (adjective) frozen, very cold
    • la nevada: snowfall; the amount of snow that has fallen over a period of time without interruption
  6. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I can offer you one for your list in English, Peter: "Fleuvage" (pronounced as if French, with a’ ‘zjh’ for the ‘ge’) was coined by Mike Roberts, the weatherman (at that time) at CHBC-TV news in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada, for the snow that happens over a lake but not on land. Okanagan Lake, which runs north-south for 80 miles through Okanagan Valley, can produce beautiful fleuvage in winter. If you meet a person who knows the word, they will almost inevitably be from the Okanagan, so it works as something of a shibboleth as well.


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