Does business need a new language of love? Philosopher Emily Morgan explores how language helps to create the world around us...

Given the current state of the global economy, it would be a substantially difficult task to find anyone who would argue that the situation is good. With a steady flow of headlines about the Eurozone crisis, nations such as China reporting their lowest economic growth in years, and austerity measures that have proved fatal for some marginalised groups in the UK, it is in no way a portrait of a sustainable world.

It was found by the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that the Global Financial Crisis – considered to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s – was caused by, amongst other things as the Guardian reported, “too many financial firms acting recklessly and taking on too much risk… and systemic breaches in accountability and ethics at all levels”. As if that weren’t enough, the kicker in the commission’s findings was that this crisis was “avoidable”. So how do we go about curbing this reckless behaviour and ensuring these breaches in accountability and ethics do not happen again?

These areas of ethics and accountability are very much the prime concern of philosophy – but could a crisis so gargantuan be avoided by something so simple as turning to philosophy of language and changing how we speak business?

Language used in business is stereotypically aggressive, hostile and disrespectful. For example, The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s Golden-Globe nominated film based on the true-life memoir of Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort, set a new record for the number of times the “F”-word was uttered on screen – 506 times if you want to check for yourself. This hostile language is more than likely in keeping with “acting recklessly”, perhaps even encouraging it due to its pervasive use. If the language of business were not so akin to language used in fights and war, would there be as many casualties?

The Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser argued that “since human beings depend on their lives more on learned and less on genetic information than do other living things, the structure through which information is carried exerts a decisive influence on our lives”. If we carry information through the language we use, then it follows that the language we use has a great effect on us all, particularly the language used by those in power. If this language were to change for the better, perhaps the great effect would be great rather than catastrophic!

In a similar vein, the American philosopher Sally Haslanger’s work in language has focused on an ameliorative approach – quite simply, to make things better. She works from the foundation that language is a collaborative project between users to communicate to each other about the world. Haslanger argues that, “as our understanding of the world develops and changes, we must collectively adjust”. There seems to be scientific support for language itself having ameliorative properties.

The research done by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D. points to words and their qualities – positive or negative – having direct effect on the neural pathways of our brains. Using positive language can bypass our brains that are hardwired to worry in order to survive, improve our self-image and increase our empathy. Communicating with negative, fearful language only enforces this hardwired fear response, which primes humans to fight. The high stress of business situations could only serve to exacerbate this fear response.

Further to this scientific research, there are real world examples of using language to unite and mobilise populations. For example, in the recent protests in Hong Kong, there is a division between those who speak and read Mandarin and Cantonese, with the former being used as the official language of the Chinese government whilst the latter is denied recognition as a real language by Beijing. The naming of the revolution – known as the “Umbrella Movement” – actually has more significance to those involved in the struggle. The difference between Cantonese characters and Mandarin characters means that a Mandarin reader looking at the Cantonese characters simply sees “Umbrella Movement”. However, a Cantonese reader sees a play on words, as to them the phrase means both “Chater Road Movement” – Chater Road being where the protestors occupy in downtown Hong Kong – and more indirectly “Umbrella Fight-Against-CY Leung Movement”. The protestors are using the quirks of Mandarin and Cantonese to affect their world from the ground up.

What if we were to see language as Haslanger argues, as a collaborative project? By focussing on using collaborative language, could this in effect rewire our brains to focus on working together? Given the insight provided by philosophy of language, the research gleaned through neuroscience and the burgeoning examples happening right now, we can but hope.

– Emily Morgan has a Philosophy BA from the University of Sheffield and is currently studying for a MLitt in Film & Television at the University of Glasgow whilst working freelance in film production. This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

This blog post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite, BBH London and the B Team to spark a conversation about language and the future of business. Find all the other posts in the series here.

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