Recently, I saw Arrival, a science fiction movie about aliens arriving on earth and mankind’s struggle to communicate with them. In many ways, this film highlights the challenges inherent to communication and the impact that language has on our perception. I’ll do my best not to spoil any of the plot, however while I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but think back to the importance of articulation as it relates to culture.
In the movie, one of the characters shares a theory that the language you speak actually affects the way in which you think. This comes up several times throughout the film. One notable instance is when a nation begins teaching the aliens a game. The concern was that by using a competition to communicate, the aliens would see humans as competitors as opposed to partners.
“If all I ever gave you was a hammer...every problem is a nail.”
This concept has stayed with me as I now see how much language impacts the way I think. When I learn a new word or phrase, I find myself using it repeatedly. This not only affects the way I describe my surroundings; it affects how I internalize my surroundings. Given that language is the medium in which we communicate our thoughts to others, it seems inevitable that language would impact the way we formulate our thoughts to begin with.
At organizations, language can contribute greatly to the culture in place. For instance, when I worked for a company with “performance reviews”, I felt as though my manager’s comments were designed, first and foremost, to be reviewed by other people. Whereas working for a company with “feedback” offered a sense that the company was invested in my growth and development. Everyone internalizes language in different ways, but at it’s core, language reflects the values of a culture. I think it’s important to remember that language also enforces those values by framing the way in which we think.