David 'Mas' Masumoto

David Mas Masumoto: How our use of language can frame our future

For a David Mas Masumoto column on the passing of time and handoff of family farm operations to his daughter, Nikiko.
For a David Mas Masumoto column on the passing of time and handoff of family farm operations to his daughter, Nikiko. swparra@fresnobee.com

All families undergo transition. Our daughter is taking over the farm. We are writing a book about succession and family. I age, she matures. Change is all about growing up.

It’s not linear. We don’t follow a nice lesson plan. For example, when learning to farm, you don’t begin with a class on controlling the weather, then later take the seminar that teaches you how to control the price of your produce.

On our farm we explore work, life and family through stories and the seasons. We share insights about why we came back to the farm, the art of pruning, and the future of food – yet we don’t know the ending, is this a comedy, tragedy or mystery?

But the language we use can frame the future. Grammar is a predictor of how we make choices. The way we talk affects our judgments and decisions going forward. It simply has to do with the word “will.”

A behavioral economist, Keith Chen, wrote about personal financial saving rates in different countries, and how attitudes about the future are tied to how languages are structured. In some countries and languages, vocabulary does not make a distinction between the present and the future.

For example, I speak some Japanese, where there is no difference between “I go” versus “I will go” – it’s the same word, “ikimasu.” However, with other languages, such as English, the speaker makes the grammatical distinction between the present and the future by adding terms such as “will.”

When people speak without a distinction between the present and future, it can alter how they feel about the future, according the Chen. Imagine saying, “I save money” instead of “I will save money.” The premise is that when the future is separated from or disassociated with the present, it’s harder to save for the future.

So Chen examined languages without future markers, such as German or Mandarin, and compared them to the national savings rates and found a correlation – more money is saved for the future when the language doesn’t use the word “will.” This may be an unconventional way of explaining monetary decisions, but follow-up studies seem to confirm this.

For example, when signing up for a 401(k) retirement plan, subjects were shown a series of photos of people aging (and people could imagine themselves years from now) and participation rates rose significantly. It’s not about “when we will get old” but rather “we age” and can see the worth of future benefits in the present.

So as my daughter and I talk about her taking over our family business and write about this experience in a book, do we speak of the change happening immediately, in incremental steps or is this all about when she will step in to take over the farm? Should I stop using “will take over” and focus on the present?

Do the “future markers” in language also relate to other issues such as health and public policy? Think “I diet” instead of “I will diet.” How about “I exercise” rather than “I will exercise.” “I stop smoking” and end the self-deception of many smokers when they state: “I will stop smoking.”

We might be motivated when we act now instead of putting something off until another day. We can see the impact of our choices today and the worth of future benefits in our daily life, not something tomorrow. Imagine a politician speaking in the present. “I cut taxes” instead of a lofty promise “I will cut taxes.” Is that political suicide or a new honest transparency?

When the future is distant, we can often disregard consequences. Unsafe sex is a simple example. But when people resist the impulse for immediate pleasure, better decisions can be made and the burden of responsibility lives with and weighs on us in the present.

The drought reached a crisis stage last year and the public responded. Perhaps because it was so dramatic, we could all visualize a future with little water and people changed their consumption patterns.

Now with more rain this winter, our water identity is challenged, the public may proclaim the crisis over and begin to believe water conservation something we “will do” in the future.” But the reality is that the drought continues, it’s a permanent part of this valley’s landscape, “I save water” must be our mantra, not “I will save.”

As our farm undergoes a transition, it’s hard not to dream of a future when everything is harmonious and balanced. Of course, I have my own vision of that future and my daughter has her own – and they don’t always match. Instead, what if both futures are unfolding now – they probably are – and the clashes are real and should be addressed now.

How we tell our stories matters. I want to live in the moment, but not to forsake the future. Writing about transition is messy and confusing. We all want nice, neat and tidy stories. But when I can see the future in the present, I’m better prepared, and my mindset no longer fears change. Sometimes I even feel younger.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”