Change Language, Change Yourself

The Washington Post had a story about an internet company in Korea which started a policy three years ago where all employees would be addressed by an English name rather than their Korean names.

Actually, as the story points, out even being addressed by a name at all was strange. Generally in a Korean workplace, you are addressed by an honorific title rather than by name.

One popular Korean blog was more explicit on shirking honorifics in the workplace: “Dropping your pants and [urinating] in the person’s briefcase would be only a little ruder than calling him/her by his/her first name.”

But some companies are looking to eliminate some of this hierarchy. The best way to do that, it seems, is dictating that employees take English names. Using the actual name of your boss or co-workers feels impolite. But, hopefully, calling him or her an English nickname taps into a different cultural mind-set.

The goal of using English nicknames is to circumvent the hierarchical mindset that inhibits progress,

In the hierarchical structure, employees cannot follow or share their own ideas. Decision-making is usually stymied by going through many chains of hierarchy. And projects are not necessarily led by expertise but by who has the highest title.

“ ‘You should, you must follow my commands over your own thinking,’ ” Hong said. “It’s like they’re soldiers. They are not working together.”

This story reminded me of a similar one where a company in Japan instituted a policy where everyone was required to speak English in the workplace for much the same reason.

Soon after the switch he conducted a board meeting entirely in English, and each time a nervous executive in a navy-blue suit asked cautiously if he might explain something in Japanese, the answer was no: Say it in English, or don’t say it. The board meeting took twice as long as a normal one.

That was five years ago. Today, Mikitani says, the culture and even the dress code are showing all the signs of having been altered by the imposition of the English language. It makes the Whorfian idea, that your native language determines how the world looks to you and thus constrains your thinking, look tame.


At Rakuten the complicated management of respect levels fell away after the switch to English, says Mikitani, and good riddance to it. He had wanted to “break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society,” and he claims the anglophone policy jump-started that. “A new casual vibe permeates our office, with employees happily shunning the monotonous navy suit typical of the Japanese workplace,” he says; he speaks of the language policy “breathing new life into a moribund business culture.”

These examples provide a little bit more evidence that the language we use is powerful. Even unconscious use of dismissive or diminishing terms over a period of time can have consequential results. If you are lived in different regions of the United States, you know that there are different characteristics attributed to places based on verbal content from the gruff people in NYC, the stoic New Englanders, Midwest Nice and laid back Californians, to name a few. Some of it is superficial, but it also informs the general tenor of exchanges in these places.

In addition to reflecting on the language we use in our workplace and personal interactions, these articles made me wonder if there is anything about the language the arts and cultural community uses that can be beneficial to other segments of the population.

Let’s face it, the language of corporations and academia certainly makes its way into conversations and grant reports when statements are being made about policies, effectiveness and pursuing objectives. There should be room for some influence to flow the other way.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


3 thoughts on “Change Language, Change Yourself”

  1. Excellent observations!

    My take on the Korean and Japanese experiments is that the way we learned to speak sets out the judgments we make in employing language. To think differently we sometimes need a different starting point, a different language. This, in fact, is part of the power art has for us. We get to see the world differently when phrased as statements in another language (art). And so if a culture’s native language is so limiting in the practices it prescribes and proscribes, we can only transcend those types of judgment from a new form of linguistic practice. This is fundamentally Wittgensteinian, as well, so it resonates with me in all sorts of ways.

    An interesting connection to your post can be found in the discussion on Barry Hessenius’ blog where he asks for a brand the arts can promote itself by. My response was to affirm his distinction between insiders and outsiders, pointing out that until the people we are interested in talking to can be made to feel *less* like outsiders, more like insiders, we will never impress them with our values. We will, in fact, never *share* our values with them.

    At Barry’s question of what the next step will be, I made the point that in addition to the positive messaging we will need in promoting the arts we will also need to lay the groundwork by removing the obstacles that undermine its taking root. —-This is precisely what the folks in Korea and Japan did.—– The native language and its attendant social implications were the problem, so these were the things that needed to be gotten rid of.

    It may take less radical surgery for the arts to find acceptance in the wider culture, but clearly we need to spend more time eliminating the obstructions, weeding the garden, as it were. Arts culture and the language of the arts will only flow in an outward direction if the ground has been prepared for it. In other words, the arts will be welcomed when there is less resistance to the ideas and values it carries with it.

    My thoughts, at least. This is the conversation over at Barry’s blog:

    • Carter – Yes, I read that comment yesterday but didn’t make the connection with post I wrote. Now that you call attention to it, it makes a lot of sense.


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