Cultural Frame Switching: Different Language, Different Personality

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by: Roger Dooley

Marketers have more options in today’s increasingly multilingual society – a variety of electronic and print media can address groups of consumers in different languages.

Various factors influence the choice of media and language. In some cases, it’s simply practical to advertise in the consumer’s native language, particularly if many of the consumers in this group are primarily monolingual. In other cases, by advertising on, say, a Spanish television channel in the US, an advertiser may earn the respect of the consumer by addressing him in his native language, as well as develop positive associations with the medium and its unique content. Now, marketers have another factor to consider when deciding where to advertise and in what language. A paper, Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame switching, published by researchers at the University of Texas, shows that bilingual individuals exhibit different personality characteristics when speaking different languages.

Lead researcher Nairan Ramirez-Esparza, tested individuals who were bilingual in English and Spanish for various personality traits, and found that the subjects answered the questions differently when asked in English and Spanish. The new work built on past research that showed the values of subjects changed when surrounded by stimuli from different cultures. In Change your personality, learn a new language, the BPS Research Digest summarizes:

English speakers tended to score higher on extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness… Researchers explained the effect of using different languages on personality as a kind of ‘Cultural Frame Switching’ – “the tendency of bicultural individuals (i.e. people who have internalised two cultures, such as bilinguals) to change their interpretations of the world… in response to cues in their environment (e.g. language, cultural icons)”.  

The researchers point out that the differences aren’t profound – introverted individuals are still introverted, for example. Even if subtle, though, the differences are noticeable.

How can marketers take advantage of “cultural frame switching”? It may sound challenging without specific research, but at least for Spanish/English bilinguals in the US there is now some hard data on the language-related personality shift. Extrapolating to other language combinations may be possible, too. Since the Spanish/English bilingual results seem to be consistent with testing of monolingual Spanish and English speakers (i.e., a comparison of personality tests of large groups of single language speakers shows similar personality differences), language-specific testing of bilingual subjects may not be essential to get an idea of what kind of cultural frame switching might occur in other bilingual combinations. Rather, comparing known personality differences for each language/culture would give an indication of the differences bilingual individuals would exhibit.

I think it would be a mistake to over-emphasize this phenomenon over other criteria affecting the selection of appropriate media and language to reach a target market. Clearly, the major considerations of demographics, perception of the medium, language fluency (or lack thereof), etc. should remain major factors. In addition, the language-driven cultural frame switching may not make much difference for many products or services – the pitch may work about as well in either language/culture. If the product does appeal more to one cultural personality, though, it may make sense to exploit that difference if the other decision criteria are more or less equivalent. Based on the Texas research, for example, a business-oriented productivity software ad might be slightly more effective in English. This is speculative, though, and even if correct the research suggests that this will be a second-order effect rather than a primary determinant of campaign success. Still, if I was marketing to bilingual consumers, I’d keep in mind the fact that the language used causes subtle but real personality differences.

Neuromarketing Blog regulars might find the cultural frame switching concept not dissimilar to priming research conducted by Bargh and others. Both cultural cues (like language) and stimuli related to other conditions (aging, ambition, etc.) cause subconscious changes in attititudes and/or behavior. Choosing the right language may be just one more way of priming the customer.

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