A new paper written by Hao Liang, Christopher Marquis, Luc Renneboog and Sunny Li Sun from Harvard Business School was published on March 2, 2014. According to their findings, there is a relationship between the language spoken by decision makers running a corporation and that firm’s social responsibility and sustainability practices.
Strong vs Weak Future-Tense Reference
The paper works with the difference between strong and weak future-tense reference (FTR) languages. A language can be considered a weak FTR language if its speakers can use the same grammatical structure to refer to both present and future events. Examples of this are German or Japanese. On the other hand, a language can be considered a strong FTR language if speakers are forced to construct separate and distinct structures to separate present from future. Examples of this type of language are English and French.
The experts have found that, for companies where a strong FTR language is spoken, the future appears more distant, which means less measures are taken to prepare the company for it. In the case of weak FTR languages, instead, speakers seem to be more aware of the future, probably because it seems linguistically closer to the present time. In fact, Liang and the rest of the team found that corporations coming from countries which speak strong FTR languages are weaker on measures of corporate social responsibility by 26 per cent. However, they did add that the difference was not as clear in the case of companies headquartered in highly globalised countries or if decision makers are very internationally minded.
To get these results, the team worked with 1,500 companies from 59 different countries throughout a period of twelve years. They chose to work with corporate social responsibility as it has shown to vary across countries, depending on culture and socio-economic environment.
The paper was based on the Principle of Linguistic Relativity, first developed by Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir, which establishes a relationship between language and behaviour. It also builds on a paper published last year by Keith Chen, a UCLA economist who established that speakers of a language which does not have a way to grammatically encode tenses when they speak are better at saving money, and looking after their health, among other things.
The Principle of Linguistic Relativity is a controversial principle itself and the paper has made some academics react against it as well. Östen Dahl, one of the first linguists to distinguish between strong and weak FTR languages stated that the distinction is not as clear cut as the paper makes it out to be. He also stated that the work fails to establish a causal connection between the language spoken and measures on corporate social responsibility and it only establishes a correlation between the two.