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Volume 22, Issue 28;   July 20, 2022: Overt Verbal Abuse at Work

Overt Verbal Abuse at Work

by

Verbal abuse in the workplace involves using written or spoken language to disparage, to disadvantage, or to otherwise harm others. Perpetrators tend to favor tactics that they can subsequently deny having used to harm anyone.
A mallet. The same object can be either a tool or a weapon

A mallet. The same object can be either a tool or a weapon. So it is with words. Words can be the means by which we exchange important information and ideas. Or they can be the weapons with which we inflict harm on each other.

Although abuse at work takes many forms, targets seeking to minimize the harmful effects of abuse would do well to study verbal abuse. Verbal abuse is the most common form of abuse at work for three reasons. First, anyone can engage in verbal abuse, because it doesn't require access to organizational resources. Second, we are (nearly) all experienced in abusing others verbally, because we learn to do it as children. And finally, when emotions take over, abusing others verbally is the one tactic that requires neither planning nor tools.

Plausible deniability

Effective responses to verbal abuse must necessarily begin with identification. Obviously, you can't respond effectively to an abusive act if you don't recognize it as abusive. That's one reason why covert verbal abuse tactics are so appealing to sophisticated perpetrators. But sophisticated perpetrators employ covert verbal abuse tactics for an even more important reason. They want to be able to plausibly deny having engaged in verbal abuse. Examples of plausible denials:

  • "Don't be so sensitive. I didn't mean anything by it."
  • "I was only yanking your chain. You have to learn to have a little more fun."
  • "It's just the way he is. Don't take him so seriously."

Overt techniques of verbal abuse

I have Words can be the means by which we
exchange important information and
ideas. Or they can be the weapons
we use to harm each other.
no examples of plausibly deniable verbal abuse because words don't appear to be abusive unless you know the context in which they are used. And typically, only the target has enough context to recognize the abuse as such.

But we can categorize the methods perpetrators use. Covert techniques of verbal abuse are those that are so subtle that they escape notice. I'll treat those in a future post. In this post, I provide examples of overt verbal abuse — tactics that are visible to anyone witnessing the exchange.

Mispronuncing, misnaming, and misstating
Intentionally mispronouncing the target's personal name can be a form of denying acknowledgement of the target's validity as a human being. Repeating this error, especially before an audience, enhances the effectiveness of this tactic. In written communication, this tactic takes the form of misspelling or misnaming. Referring to Ellison as Allison, or to Bart as Bert, are examples.
But personal names are only one form of this technique. The perpetrator can apply this tactic when referring to projects, techniques, procedures, vendors, or initiatives — anything known to be favored by the target. The effect is similar: it communicates disdain for the item mis-referenced. The perpetrator thereby denies its very existence, indirectly abusing the target.
Threatening
Threats are explicit statements of intent to cause harm. These acts are perhaps the most obvious examples of verbal abuse. They usually consist of a condition and a consequence that the target regards as physically, professionally, or psychologically harmful. Example: "If you do X, I'll do Y." Either the condition or the consequence (or both) can occur in a negative form, as in, "If you don't do X, I'll do Y," or "If you do X, I won't do Y," or "If you don't do X, I won't do Y."
Threats can also be unconditional, as in, "I'll do Y." Threats of this form are uncommon, because they don't require the target to undertake any action the perpetrator might find desirable. They merely inform the target that harm lies in the target's future. However, unconditional threats do serve as demonstrations of power, as in, "I'm about to harm you by doing Y, and there is nothing you can do about it."
Because threatening is so widely viewed as unacceptable behavior, sophisticated abusers often deliver threats in private.
Talking over
Talking over someone is the practice of speaking while another person is speaking. When it happens accidentally, the partners halt immediately to politely resolve the collision. But talking over can occur intentionally as well. There are two modes: Defensive Talking Over and Offensive Talking Over. If Speaker 1 refuses to yield even after Speaker 2 interrupts to begin talking, then Speaker 1 is engaged in Defensive Talking Over. In that instance, Speaker 2 is engaged in Offensive Talking Over. When these incidents occur, a voice volume contest often ensues.
Talking over another person can be abusive or disrespectful, depending on the intensity of the incident. But it isn't a favored tactic of sophisticated perpetrators. Although both modes (Offensive and Defensive) are potentially abusive, neither is deniable, at least not plausibly so. Usually, these incidents occur between rivals as part of a pattern of long standing.
Even though these tactics are visible to all, the perpetrator can nevertheless deny that they were intended to be abusive. A name is mispronounced accidentally; the threat delivered in private "never happened;" the talking over was perhaps "excessively passionate," but not abusive. We all see what's happening, but because of the perpetrator's skill, we're compelled to admit that perhaps abuse did not actually occur. With enough repetition, though, the perpetrators can be found out.

In a future post I'll examine tactics that are more difficult to identify, even if repeatedly employed. Go to top Top  Next issue: Gratuitous Use of Synonyms, Aliases, and Metaphors  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
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Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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