And then one wonders, why the hullaballoo around speaking – when to speak, how to say it, what is the purpose – the questions never end. Today’s piece of wisdom sheds light on the consequences of insensitive communication. Today’s ‘proverb’ is in fact a couplet by the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, from his famous work Tirukkural: “theeyinaar suttapuN uLLaarum aaRaadhae, naavinaaR sutta vadu” means that burns caused by a caustic tongue take longer to heal than those burnt by fire. If there ever was a timeless proverb, it would have to be this one. Written somewhere between the 4th or 5th century B.C., it is just as relatable in our workplaces today.
How many of us can remember that one sentence, one phrase or one word by a colleague or a boss that stung us so hard, we cannot help feeling bitter even today when we think about it? How vividly can we remember the exact scene, how it played out, the exact words? Did you think about someone specific when you read the last two questions? Some specific words? Have the burns healed?
The hyperconnected, fast-paced 21st century workplaces that we have created for ourselves can get stressful, even toxic. We take pride in “having a finger on the pulse” with a “hands on” approach. However, in an age where our potential stakeholders could reside in any part of the world and can belong to many different identity groups at the same time, being sensitive and inclusive in the way we communicate has become an imperative to creating a workplace where everyone feels safe and thereby motivated.
Back to the context of the proverb, burns caused by words immediately made me think of microaggressions. These tiny elements of everyday speech or behaviour are known to leave their “burns” on a person’s mind. The term microaggressions was coined by Chester Pierce in 1978 in context of racial discrimination in TV commercials. Microaggressions are brief yet commonplace verbal, behavioural or situational indignities, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative comments about a person. Microaggressions are very often a manifestation of racial biases and can potentially have lasting psychological impact on those at the receiving end. They can be the building blocks of discrimination – not only racial, but cultural, gender-based, linguistic, professional, cognitive and on many other grounds. They are perhaps the smallest unit of communication that could potentially wreak havoc to exclude members belonging to under-privileged and minority communities.
The single biggest danger with microaggressions is that they occur at fleeting moments in communication, which makes them almost undetectable. And before you can respond to them, the wound has been cut. Or should we say, the person has been burnt? Hate speech, racial discrimination in public discourse, or outright aggressive behaviour in workplaces, while damaging in their reach and magnitude, are also easy to identify and thereby, to stand against. Microaggressions, on the other hand, remain unidentified because they can be camouflaged in everyday, seemingly innocuous communication.
Examples of microaggressions in workplaces are plenty. They can be potent mechanisms of exclusion within a group and yet, are difficult to lay a finger on. From continually mispronouncing someone’s name under the guise of ‘humourous’ excuses of it being a tongue twister to constantly reminding someone how good they are despite their drawbacks or background. What’s worse, these double-edged swords can be non-verbal or situational too. Continuing to speak the dominant language in a group where there are members of other linguistic communities who do not share the language or beginning to whisper and turn away as someone from a different “identity” group enters the meeting room, could be environmental aggressions that could leave a person excluded.
Difficult to detect by extension makes it easy to deny. The recent incident of KPMG CEO commenting that he did not believe in biases and that people should stop playing the "victim card" should be an eye opener. He eventually, resigned after that fateful meeting and statement, but that doesn’t even begin to cut the losses. It just lays open the seriousness of the issue and how deeply rooted the microaggressions are. Studies across the world have shown how microaggressions and the biases they manifest account for underperformance in jobs, employee turnover in companies, and lesser confidence for a lifetime for those discriminated against. A study by the Level Playing Field institute in 2007 for example estimated the cost of employee turnover solely due to discrimination at the workplace at a whopping $64 billion annually. In a UK based study, 50% of female managers reported self-doubt as opposed to 31% male managers.
India is a different playing field altogether. Coexisting with diversity is something we grow up with and therefore is our second nature. Does it follow automatically though that we are also very inclusive in our communications? Are we immune to committing or feeling microaggressions? A single reflection at so many incidents we have either faced or witnessed will lay down proof on the contrary.
What could we as business communication trainers and coaches do about microaggressions? When coaching about negotiation, conflict resolution, marketing, intercultural communication, and the all-important ‘productive’ facets of business communication, how often do we stop to talk about these tiny and seemingly insignificant elements of communication that potentially inflict long-lasting ‘burns’? How could we, playing roles where we can make a difference, spread the awareness, contribute break the microaggression loop in our workplaces, and begin the efforts to make workplaces safe and happy for everyone? Could we take ‘micro’ steps to include elements of being aware, calling out and engaging mindfully to confront microaggressions in our trainings?
If less is more can be said for the negative impact of microaggressions, less can be more to combat them as well.
Ishita Ray is a Learning Consultant with more than a decade of experience in academia and corporate sectors. She has formerly worked at Tata Consultancy Services, where she designed learning content and strategy for online and face to face programs in Business and Intercultural Communication. She believes in encouraging dialogue and
reflection to create inclusive and accessible learning spaces for every individual. She can be reached on LinkedIn.