The Language We Use – A Key to Our Culture

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The language you use shows what country you are from.

When we observe our words carefully we open our understanding to our culture.

Consider how in the USA we use the following phrases. Each one is a clue to our cultural code.

 “When I grow up”

It is quite typical for people in the USA to jokingly say “I don’t really know what I want for my life but when I grow up I will….!”

The quest for eternal adolescence is at the core of the culture.

Traits like always seeking new frontiers to cross, challenging authority, and mistakes warranting a second chance are part of the USA culture and quintessential adolescent characteristics.

So too with the drive for independence as seen in the statement “Nobody tells me what to do.” Another illustration of the drive for eternal youth noted by a French person who told a friend of mine “You Americans dress like adolescents.”

 “What’s he worth?”

The ultimate scorecard for a person’s value in the USA is how much money they have. On the East coast it is “old” money that is a barometer of status. Then there are those who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to “new” money. They are determined to have “made it”. Having money is also proof that the person has value in the world.

By contrast, a homeless or unemployed person is deemed to have little worth to society.

 “Time is money”

The USA typically has a very linear view of time. Time is seen as scarce and it needs to be managed carefully. We feel panicked when we perceive it as being wasted or in short supply as seen in “There are never enough hours in the day for me to….” Hence we find a nation of over-scheduled, stressed out citizens always scampering from A-B.

Contrast the above belief about time with cultural beliefs in our new home in Mexico. The watchword here could be “There is plenty of time. Relax.”

One could set out on an errand and meet friends along the way and stop and have a long unplanned meal with them. People jokingly ask, “Do you mean Mexico or USA time?” In another instance, the board of directors of a global parent company asked a recently acquired Mexican business

“You made $50 million profit last year. You now need to make $100 million profit next year.”

The Mexicans asked “Why? We are a successful company. Was not $50 million enough?”

 A word of caution.

Not every person in a culture behaves in exactly the same way. But there are deeply embedded assumptions in every culture that shape behavior to some degree or another. So,

Listen to language that provides a key to the heart of a culture.


What words and phrases do you (or your culture) unconsciously use that drive your behavior?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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