“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns--things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. Things we don't know we don't know.”

I’m not one to quote Donald Rumsfeld much, but from the standpoint of cultural training, this often maligned quote is kind of spot on. As a set of shared behavioral norms, culture reveals itself in ways that are sometimes apparent and teachable: be on time for a meeting in Switzerland, be sure to take a moment to really look at a Japanese colleague’s business card, etc. The tricky part that intercultural business trainers face is how to convey the invisible yet just as powerful ways that culture influences us. That’s why I found this TED Lecture so fascinating.

Keith Chen is a behavioral economist, and he’s discovered something rather alarming. Something that illuminates, in persuasive fashion, the unknown power that culture and language express over our lives. As it turns out, people who speak languages that don’t have a traditional future tense are actually much better at preparing for their future, be it in increased savings for retirement, better health, lower smoking rates, lower rates of obesity, and even safer sexual practices.

For instance, in English we might say, it will rain tomorrow. But in Flemish, Chinese, and several other languages, you would say, it rain tomorrow. And somehow, softening the distinction between events presently occurring with those that will be occurring in the future gives them more immediacy. Confusing? Try thinking of it this way: I will save my money for tomorrow vs. I save my money for tomorrow. By omitting the very idea of will, an entire nation is culturally more inclined to delay immediate gratification for future gain and deal with circumstances, maybe even years down the line with far a greater sense of imminence and urgency.

Very interesting stuff, and a clear sign of the power that language and culture often unknowingly exudes upon our lives. What other hidden aspects of culture have you discovered in the places and people you’ve worked with and how they might express themselves in your life and workplace?