Choosing Our Words: How Language Today Impacts Tomorrow

Conventional wisdom tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to creating the future, words might have the upper hand. Now this isn’t simply your inner Stuart Smalley telling you that, “You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You.” It turns out, Ivy League researchers are generating new insights about the power of words.

Americans have a proclivity to procrastinate, especially when it involves delayed gratification such as saving for retirement or starting an exercise program. It seems there’s always a reason to wait one more day before getting started. Yet, what could easily be attributed to a lack of self discipline, apparently has deeper roots in the language that we use. Specifically, the way we differentiate between the present and the future.

Not all languages share the sharp distinction between the present and future tense that is found in English. Specifically, Japanese, Mandarin and German languages all blur the distinction. As a result, phrases such as,  “I go to work” and “I will go to work” can be written the same way. On the surface this could appear to be unnecessary semantics.

However, according to a recent article by Chris Gayomali in The Week,  Keith Chen of the Yale School of Management believes these differences not only cause people to think differently about the future, but more importantly, they have a significant impact on future results.

Ozgun Atasoy in Scientific American reports, “Chen analyzed individual-level data from 76 developed and developing countries … the effect of language on people’s savings rates turned out to be big.” The research accounted for a variety of variables that impact savings rates including national GDP, individual education level, as well as religious and cultural values. After those factors were accounted for, areas that used languages like English with “obligatory future markers” had people who were 30% less likely to save money for the future. The other factor that made people 30% less likely to save … unemployment.

Consider this finding: when it comes to saving for retirement, the language we use is as important as the job we have.

In fact, in countries where languages do not differentiate between present and future, Atasoy says, “the future does not feel very distant and it is easier for them to act in accordance with their future interests.” As a result, they save more and live healthier.

Describing Ourselves and Creating Our Future

While this research examined the impact of language on decisions related to health and savings, the power of words certainly can apply to radio. A program director we work with makes his air talent pay a fine any time they mention “doing a shift” instead of “hosting a show.” Doing a shift is what you do when you work in a factory. When you work in entertainment and are on the radio, you host a show. It’s a small but powerful example of how our words create reality.

As we move forward, individually and collectively, we need to be choosing our words carefully, because we know the competition will be. Whether it’s iRadio or Pandora, on a smart phone or in the car, new entrants are happy to generate headlines  and create buzz, as if they were the long lost relatives of Guglielmo Marconi.

Meanwhile, millions of people tune in to their favorite station, every minute of every day, enjoying the content, the ease of use and the shared experience.

Identifying and engaging those who matter most to your ratings and revenue is what we do. To learn more,  please contact Andrew Curran, COO at DMR/Interactive.


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