Different Language, Different Perception of Personality?

by Paige Ballard, Kenyon ’18

The language you speak affects many aspects of your life, including – according to recent research – your personality. Psychologists Chen, Benet-Martínez, and Ng looked at whether what language Chinese-English bilinguals spoke affected their personality perception.

Much of this study relies on the idea of “dialectical thinking,” so let’s get defining that out of the way. Essentially, dialectical thinking is the acceptance of contradicting, ambiguous, or inconsistent information. It is largely tied to Eastern philosophy, and pops up again and again when looking at cultural differences between East and West. From proverbs to arguments to self-descriptions, Easterners tend to be okay with things not quite lining up. Westerners, on the other hand, have low dialectical thinking – they like everything to make sense and stay the same.

The researchers predicted that speaking Chinese would draw out these dialectical thinking tendencies – the tendency not to force everything to fit together into one cohesive whole. That means that they thought Chinese speakers would notice more differences in personality and behavior (both in themselves and in others).

In order to test this, the researchers first had to test whether speaking a different language really does elicit different levels of dialectical thinking. They did so by recruiting college students who could speak both English and Chinese. They gave these participants a test measuring their dialectical thinking in both languages. Lo and behold, higher levels were found when responding in Chinese. When different participants were randomly assigned to respond in either Chinese or English, the Chinese group once again showed higher dialectical thinking.

Previous research has shown that there is a cultural difference in dialectical thinking– Chinese people tend to be more tolerant of contradictions than Americans – but this study goes one step further. In the exact same people, its level changes depending on which language they are speaking.

This study also looked at whether what language the questions were in affected how participants rated personalities. In both Chinese and English, participants rated their own personality, as well as the personalities of “typical” native Chinese and English speakers. Researchers then calculated how different all these ratings were from each other. They found that differences were significantly higher in Chinese than in English – participants responding in Chinese were more likely to assign different personalities to different people, than were those responding in English.

So the researchers had it pretty locked down that these differences exist, on paper at least. But what about in actual interactions between people? Do these results carry over into behavior?

To test this, participants spoke with research assistants in English and in Chinese. They were then asked if they thought they behaved any differently when they were speaking one language or the other. Those who were higher in dialectical thinking were more likely to report that they were acting differently in the two situations. The researchers, the other half of the conversation, was also more likely to report high behavioral differences in high dialectical thinking participants. The same is also true of observers who just watched a video of the participant speaking.

Now that seems like a lot of ratings, but hear me out. Not only do participants think that they are acting differently in different situations, but strangers, people watching these random conversations, also see the participant acting differently. They’re actually changing in some significant, noticeable way depending on what language they are speaking.

All this discussion of language and behavior and “dialectical thinking” circles around one main idea – culture affects how we act. It’s as simple as that. Well, sorta.

Using a certain language evokes aspects of its connected culture. When you speak Chinese, you’re more likely to act in accordance with Eastern culture (have high dialectical thinking, be more okay with contradictions). And when you speak English, you’re more likely to act in accordance with Western culture (have lower dialectical thinking, what things to be consistent).

Now this study is not without its faults. All of the participants were bilinguals, which may in and of itself account for higher perception of differences. Bilingualism alone does not, however, explain away the differences within this group of bilinguals. There is also, however, the fact that the participants were Chinese. They did have to know English well to be selected for this study, but the possibility remains that their (presumably) higher fluency in Chinese accounted for the more complex and varied reports of personality. Maybe they simply didn’t have as firm a grasp of the English language, and therefore couldn’t account for its nuances.

Either way, this study looks at how you see yourself, how you see others, even how you act – and it finds that culture, as drawn to the surface by what language you’re speaking, affects all of those things. Your culture has a lot to say about who you are, and language is a big part of that.

References

Chen, S. X., Benet-Martínez, V., & Ng, J. C. K. (2014). Does language affect personality perception? A functional approach to testing the Worfian hypothesis. Journal of Personality, 82(2), 130-143. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12040

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