Linguistic characteristics affecting people management

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Among the tasks of a manager are the necessities of instructing, motivating and leading his subordinates.  He may often lead by example, but as far as motivation and the issuing of directives are concerned, he will be heavily dependent on language.

Different languages are used in different ways and with a variety of effects.  Hyperbolic American and understated British English clearly inform and inspire listening staff with separate allure and driving force.  Managers of all nationalities know how to speak to best effect to their compatriots, for there are built-in characteristics in their language which facilitate the conveyance of ideas to their own kind.  They are, in fact, only vaguely aware of their dependence on these linguistic traits which make their job easier.

With increasing globalisation, problems will arise in the following instances:

a) when a manager is involved in international team building
b) when he himself has to use a language other than his own

An example of situation (a) is when a Briton or American addresses a team containing, among others, Germans.  The occasional quipping or half-serious remarks typical of Anglo-American managers will only too often be taken literally by Germans, who may carry out “orders” which were only being casually considered.

An example of  (b) is when a Japanese managing Anglo-Saxons hints at directives in such a courteous and half-suggestive manner that all is lost in a fog of impeccable courtesy.

How does the particular genius of a certain language, manifested by its structure, vocabulary and tones, play its part in conveying instructions and inspiration to its listeners?  Let us examine some of the characteristics of languages which are tools of management in the industrialized world.


It is fitting to begin with German, for the tightly disciplined, regular native of the language heralds a facility to convey unambiguous, closely-directed instructions, which, one can suppose, would constitute good management.  Germans belong to a data-oriented, low-context culture and like receiving detailed information and instruction to guide them in the performance of tasks in which they wish to excel.  In business situations, German is not used in a humorous way, neither do its rigid case-endings and strict word order allow the speaker to think aloud very easily.  The German subordinate has not wish to hear his manager think aloud – what he wants are clear directives!

Highly-structured German, with few homonyms (in contrast to, for example, Chinese) is conducive to the issuing of clear orders.  The almost invariable use of the sie (formal) form in business fits in well with the expectancy of obedience and reinforces the hierarchical nature of the communication.

As far as motivating subordinates is concerned, German would seem to be less flexible than, for instance, bubbly American English.  The constrictive effect of case-endings make it difficult for the German speaker to chop and change in the middle of a sentence.  He embarks on a course plotted partly by gender, partly by morphology in a strait-jacket of Teutonic word order.  He does not have the flexibility of a thinking-aloud Anglo-American brainstormer.  The verb coming at the end obliges the hearer to listen carefully to extract the full meaning.  The length and complexity of German sentences reflects the German tendency to distrust simple utterances.  Information-hungry Germans are among the best listeners in the world; their language fits the bill.

American English

An American manager need not be cautious.  In the United States, there is no phobia about the exercise of management or the drive of senior executives.  Public opinion, in general, does not exhibit and anti-business streak observable in several European societies.  In the USA, the manager, if not always a hero, is viewed in a positive and sympathetic light, as one of the figures responsible for the speedy development and commercial success of the nation.

The language reflects this spirit – American English is quick and direct.  The frequent tendency to hyperbolize, exaggerating chances of success, overstating aims or targets, allows the American manager to ‘pump up’ his subordinate – to drive him on to longer hours and speedier results.  American salesmen do not resent this approach for they are used to the ‘hard sell’ themselves.  Tough talk, quips, wisecracks, barbed repartee – all available in good supply in American English, help them on their way.

The ubiquitous use of ‘get’ in US English facilitates clear, direct orders.  You get up early, you get going, you get there first, you get the client and you get the order, got it?  The many neologisms in American English, used liberally by the manager, permit him to appear up-to-date, with it, aphoristic, humorous and democratic.  It is oh, so state-of-the-art.

British English

In England, the language has quite different qualities and, as a management tool, is much more subtle.  The English staff member who would be put off, disturbed, by American exaggeration and tough talk, falls for a more understated, laid-back version of English which reflects (and toys with) his own characteristics.  Managers manipulate subordinates with friendly small talk, humour, reserved statement of objectives and an oh-so-casual approach to getting down to work.  You don’t arrive on the dot and work round the clock, instead you show that things flow for you.  Staff are gently massaged by off-hand references to goals, witticisms, anecdotes and even parables.  English has been practising these tricks since the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare.  An English manager may use a fable to show his wisdom.  His liberal use of sporting terms – “sticky wicket”, “even bet”, “offside” – shows his sporting nature and his solidarity with leisure-minded staff.

The variety of types of humour available in the British Isles enables the manager to be humorous, to praise, change direction, chide, insinuate and criticize at will.  He may even level criticism at himself in this way.  Irony is a powerful weapon either way.

Both British and American English are excellent media for brainstorming, due to the richness of vocabulary, double meanings, nuances, word-coining facilities and abundance of neologisms.  American managers and staff often use coined-yesterday business terminologies which neither fully understands, but which unite them in wonder at the spanking newness of the expression.  Brits, in contrast, shy away from neologisms, often preferring woolly, old-fashioned phrases which frequently lead to sluggish thinking.  “Muddling through” is the result – the British are famous for it (in war and business!).

A foreign executive is often at a loss in trying to follow the train of thought or interest of an English manager for many of the signals are coded.  Where a German would criticize directly, a Briton attacks in an oblique manner.  Understatement and faint irony often lead to the opposite being said of what is actually meant.  It is difficult for a foreign national to decode British ways of criticizing, praising, suggesting, condemning and abandoning.  Also, different types of humour and critique are used according to status and social class.  English managers can appear astonishingly patronising to secretaries, often taking to them like they were servants.  But no offence is intended or taken. It is a kind of theatre where everyone knows his or her part (and says the right lines).


There is a certain similarity in the language of management in Britain and Japan, though the basic, ever-present indirectness of the Japanese style makes the British, by comparison, seem clinical thinkers!

Nevertheless, they have something in common – an aversion to “rocking the boat.”  The British manager’s understated criticisms, his humorous shafts in attack, his apparent reasonableness of expression at all times, are gambits to preserve harmony in his team.  In Japan, the drive towards harmony is so strong that it takes priority over clarity, even truth itself.

The Japanese manager does not issue orders; he only hints at what has to be done.  The language is custom-designed for this.  The structure, which normally stacks up a line of subordinate clauses before the main one, invariably lists the justifications for the directive before it reaches its listeners.

“Quick, tidy up the office, the President is coming!” in American English would be expressed in Japanese as, “As we shall be honoured shortly by a visit of our President, and since we would wish to show him how tidy our office is…”
The actual order is never given – there is no need.  The staff are already tidying up.

Japanese has its built-in mechanisms creating a strong impact on the listener.  The general mandatory politeness creates a climate where staff appear to be quietly consulted in the most courteous manner.  This very courtesy encourages their support and compliance.   In fact, they have no choice, as the hierarchy of communication is already settled by the status of the manager, based on the quality of his university degree.  In-built mechanisms of honorifics reinforce, however, the hierarchical situation.  The different set of expressions (again, mandatory) used in formulating the subordinate’s response to the manager’s remarks, close the circle of suggestion, absorption, compliance.  A German friend of mine – a scientist – was disturbed when, on suggesting various hypothetical experiments to a Japanese co-worker, the Japanese brought him the results every Friday!  I had to point out to my German friend that if one begins a sentence with, “If only we tried this…,” it corresponds to an order in Japan!

Other characteristics of the Japanese language, which serve managers in instructing and motivating staff are the Passive Voice, used for extra politeness, the impersonal verb, which avoids casting direct blame, the use of silence or a special intake of breath on certain issues which indicate clearly to the subordinates what the manager’s opinion is.  Reported speech is not popular in Japan, for one subscribes to the myth that all one-to-one conversations are delivered in confidence.  It is interesting to note, however, that the language does not possess a reported-speech mechanism (this may be one of the rare examples where linguistic structure reflects social preference).


French managers inhabit quite a different world, are clinically direct in their approach and see no advantage in ambiguity or ambivalence.  A British manager, perhaps uncertain or uncommitted on some aspect of policy himself, may take the easy way out and “waffle” at the critical moment.  His staff may, in fact, like this, since they do not feel too regimented and relish the options open to them (they might be able to show their originality).  The French manager, though roundabout and wordy in is exposé, steers his staff along his selected avenue in the end.

The French language, like many daughters of Latin, is clinical, clear, unambiguous.  It is a crisp, incisive tongue, a kind of verbal dance or gymnastics of the mouth which presses home its points in an undisguised logical urgency.

The French education system, from childhood, places a premium on articulateness and eloquence of expression.  Unlike Japanese, Finnish and sometimes British children, the French child is rarely discouraged from being talkative.  In the French culture, loquacity is equated with intelligence.  Silence does not have a particularly golden sheen.  Lycée, university and École Normale Supérieure education reinforce the emphasis on good speaking, purity of grammar and mastery of the French idiom.  The French language, unquestionably, is the chief weapon wielded by the manager in directing, motivating and dominating staff members.  Less articulate Frenchmen will show no resentment.  Masterful use of language and logic implies, in their understanding, masterful management.

Other languages

Other languages such as Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Swedish, to take a few, are management tools in their respective areas and each one possesses linguistic characteristics which intertwine with management goals.  In the Gulf States, for example, a good manager is a good Muslim.  The language used will make frequent references to Allah and align itself with the precepts and style of the Koran.  A didactic management style is the result.  The inherent rhetorical qualities of the Arabic language lend themselves to the reinforcement of the sincerity of the speaker.  A raised voice is a sign not of anger, but of genuine feeling and exhortation.

Swedish, as a language of management, leans heavily on the “Du” (informal) form and dry, courteous expressions which clearly stratify the manager at the same level as his colleagues or, at the very worst, as a primus inter pares.  I recently heard a television journalist in his mid-twenties address the Prime Minister as “Du” on TV.  I thought it rather presumptuous, but it made a point about interpersonal communication in modern Sweden.

To take a rather different example, Spanish, used as a language of management, comes from a much more vertical angle.  The Spanish manager is usually happy to use the “tu” form to subordinates, but the declaimed nature of his delivery, with typical Spanish fire and emphasis, make his pronouncement and opinions virtually irreversible.  Spanish, with its wealth of diminutive endings, its rich vocabulary and multiple choice options on most nouns, is extremely suitable for expressing emotion, endearments, nuances and intimacies.  The Spanish manager’s discourse leans on emotive content.  He cajoles, he persuades, he woos.  He wants you to know how he feels.  The language exudes sensuousness, ecstasy, excitement, warmth, ardour and sympathy.  The senior executive has a wonderful tool for demonstrating his own human force.

Correlation of linguistic structure and cultural type

The assertion that linguistic categories are directly expressive of overt cultural outlines, supported by Whorf but resisted by his contemporary, Edward Sapir, is by no means proven at the present time.  Holden points out that linguistics and management hardly intersect as intellectual disciplines.  Yet we can see that cultural traits, such as American directness or Japanese avoidance of confrontation, have had some influence on the fundamental structure of language (or was it the other way round?).  A Spanish manager would find Swedish, even if he spoke it well, a difficult medium in which to motivate his colleagues.  The Swede, “managing” in Spanish, would find many features of the language superfluous to his purposes.

We have seen how the French manager dominates by language, the Japanese by status, the Spaniard by human force, the Swede by self-effacement, the German by imposing procedures and regulations, the Briton by careful control of self and expression, often flavoured by humour or subtlety.  In each case, the managers know the linguistic ropes, as they deal with their own nationalities.  When it comes to leading and inspiring international teams, modification is obviously required, for the different “receiving apparatus” of others.  Yet most communicators lack the insight to construct a message that neutralizes the influence of the language being used.

Team builders, when addressing partners, must be aware that language, besides being an excellent symbolic system of reference (Germans use this strength), also possesses submerged, quasi-mathematical patterns which have a tremendous intuitive vitality.  This vibrates on a different wavelength from language to language.  It is beyond the abilities of international managers to capitalize on the variety of effects described, even in this short paper.  Not only would a great talent for languages be required, but an intimate knowledge of the cultural make-up of team members would be essential.

The best we can hope for is that builders of international teams will develop a general orientation regarding the relation of the management concept in a particular culture to the way it is expressed in the language.  Outpouring of clinical, logical French will rivet the attention of staff members on their charismatic leader.  Japanese listeners, suspicious of verbal skills, prefer a loose structure of argument to pure reason; the Japanese manager, suggesting and illustrating rather than ordering, exploits the clever impersonality and detachment of the Japanese language to satisfy this preference.  He, among all managers, appears to have the lightest touch; in reality, the hierarchical structure of Japanese companies and the lifetime employment pattern leave staff with little alternative to ready compliance and obedience.

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