The Link Between Language and Corporate Responsibility
Over the years, we’ve seen corporations pay increasing attention to being good global citizens focused on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Whether the organization’s goal is good public relations, good community relations, employee involvement, or a better bottom line, this development has reached acronym status: CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).
How companies use language to articulate their social efforts has been a topic of study. Several articles by Desantis Brenindel, brand marketers out of NYC, say that the language used to describe the CRS endeavors help companies align these efforts with the core values of their corporate brand. They analyzed the CSR reports of Fortune’s Top 100 companies and found that the terminology used was carefully chosen and consistent with the company’s branding and further promoted their messaging. It is not surprising that corporate marketing would tailor the description of its community campaigns to work consistently within the company’s brand.
Researchers at Harvard Business School, led by Christopher Marquis, thought to ask a more fundamental question: what if the actual language used by top executives – that is English, Chinese, German, etc. – was related to the success and implementation of corporate social responsibility programs?
It has long been theorized that the language a group has to work with influences their behavior, values and indeed the structure of their world. That is, languages shape the way people think. These researchers asked if the same could be true of businesses. Was the native tongue they used a determiner in business philosophies and decisions?
Their research shows that a company’s degree of social responsibility is indeed affected by this factor—the language it uses to communicate.
Research has shown that companies located in countries including Germany, Japan, and most Nordic nations are more likely to practice CSR and sustainability initiatives than are companies in France, India, the US, or Russia, for example. This has been attributed to the “cultures” of these countries. The concept of culture is easy to understand but how do you measure something as subjective as culture?
These researchers used language. Surprisingly, the vocabulary used was not as important as the way the language is fundamentally structured. This is related to previous work by Keith Chen in a paper published in the American Economic Review which studied individual decision making. He explained that in English, and Spanish, for example, speakers change to a completely different structure to refer to the future; while in others such as German, Swedish and Chinese, use basically the same structure.
Some languages such as English, or Russian, when describing future actions use construction that place a greater distance between the present and the future. Social responsibility is always an investment in the future. The researchers found that, like individuals, the more separation placed between present and future events, the less socially responsible a company was.
All is not lost however! Just as some people can diet or save money even if their language is structured for short term gratification, organizations can take on the challenge. The investigators also found that the language effect was largely overcome by the companies that were highly globalized and had workers internationally. Just being aware that language has an influence, can help managers and strategists direct business behavior in many ways, including social responsibility.