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Volume 22, Issue 31;   August 10, 2022: Covert Verbal Abuse at Work

Covert Verbal Abuse at Work


Verbal abuse at work uses written or spoken language to disparage, disadvantage, or harm others. Perpetrators favor tactics they can subsequently deny having used. Even more favored are abusive tactics that are so subtle that others don't notice them.
Gas train station lamp at Oakworth railway station in West Yorkshire, England

Gas train station lamp at Oakworth railway station in West Yorkshire, England. Gas lighting was ascendant toward the end of the nineteenth century and descendant in the beginning of the twentieth. The verb gaslight derives from a film of the same name in which one character controls the perceptions of another, causing the target to doubt her grasp on reality.

Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic by Colin Smith, courtesy Wikipedia.

In an earlier post, "Overt Verbal Abuse at Work," Point Lookout for July 20, 2022, I noted that many of those who abuse others verbally prefer to use tactics that provide them with plausible deniability. That is, perpetrators prefer tactics that enable them to deny that they were intending to harm or offend anyone. But tactics even more favored, from the perpetrator's perspective, are those that, while abusive, escape the notice of all concerned — both targets and bystanders. When artfully employed, these covert verbal abuse tactics do harm the perpetrator's targets, but they do so in ways that few notice. Many of those who do witness the use of these tactics misinterpret them as benign, supportive, or even laudatory.

Here are five examples of covert verbal abuse tactics.

Unfavorable placement in lists
The order of elements in a list communicates a subtle message pertaining to the relative significance of the elements of the list. For example, "I'd like to thank the entire maintenance team for their rapid response this weekend, and especially X, Y, and Z."
The first and last positions of lists (in this example, X and Z) are the most significant. [Brenner 2022] But they can be either favorable or unfavorable, depending on the details of the presentation. In this tactic, the opportunity for abuse lies in the potential for misrepresenting the relative importance of the items in the list. The list placement tactic is subtle; perhaps that's why it's such a favorite of those who seek plausible deniability for their abusive behavior.
To speak condescendingly to a target is to patronize, to speak haughtily, or to speak in a way that presumes superiority over the target. Example: "I might consider you annoying, if I gave you any thought." Or, upon meeting a former colleague from a previous place of employment, "Ah, I see you still exist."
Unlike some Many of those who witness the use of covert
verbal abuse tactics misinterpret them as
benign, supportive, or even laudatory.
of the other tactics discussed in Part 1 — threats are an example — condescension is employed primarily not for the target, but for third parties. When performed artfully, some targets are actually unaware of the condescension.
Ridiculing or denigrating personal attributes is plausibly deniable if the perpetrator can couple the ridicule with genuine humor. Genuine humor can provide a cover for genuine abuse.
The more hurtful forms of this abuse entail ridicule of personal attributes that the target cannot change, or wouldn't want to change, or finds difficult to modulate or impossible to conceal. Examples of these attributes are gender, sexual orientation, height, weight, demeanor, speech impediments, age, national origin, race, ethnic background, criminal record, and so on.
Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which the perpetrator takes steps designed to make the target question his or her feelings or sanity. In extreme cases, targets doubt their own ability to accurately perceive reality. When the perpetrator can accomplish this, the perpetrator then can use control over the target to accomplish other objectives.
For example, in a financially troubled company, key personnel sometimes depart voluntarily, exacerbating the company's troubles. The need to prevent further attrition of key personnel can drive management to conduct a series of all hands meetings in which they will reveal to employees "secret initiatives" that promise financial renewal. A condition of admission to these meetings is execution of a revised non-compete agreement that binds employees to the company more effectively than did the previous agreement. By highlighting the "secret initiatives" Management distorts employees perceptions of the non-compete agreement.
Labeling, also known as name-calling, is the tactic of affixing a term to the target for the purpose of associating undesirable tropes with the target. Ethnic and religious slurs are examples of labeling. Although the racist and anti-religious forms of labeling do occur in the workplace, they tend not to provide plausible deniability. They are therefore found in use more frequently in private settings.
More open usage of labeling is likely associated with stereotypes associated with professions. For example, technologists might be regarded as "too geeky to put in front of a customer." Or a technical writer might be directed to "rewrite the user guide in terms even HR can understand."

Last words

These five tactics are just examples. There are many more. Another example: "There's that tactic James was mentioning the other day, I've forgotten what it was, but there was some disagreement about whether it was abusive, can you remind me?" This way of describing the tactic makes it seem unimportant, while it associates it with James, making James seem unimportant. What looks like a comment about a tactic is actually a comment about James. Tricks like this are difficult to notice in real time. Practice does help. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Meetings Go Down Rabbit Holes  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2022]
Richard Brenner. "Logical Presentation Can Be Ineffective," Point Lookout blog, March 2, 2022. Available here. Back

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