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Analysis: The Absence Of Tameez

When a senior male manager in a media company was told by a woman colleague, gently yet firmly, that he was persistently using foul language and that she felt disrespected, his response was a very reluctant, almost offended acceptance. Offended acceptance is a peculiar thing and is very widespread. At one level is the acceptance but below that, and usually very visible, there is contempt towards the person giving the feedback.

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When a senior male manager in a media company was told by a woman colleague, gently yet firmly, that he was persistently using foul language and that she felt disrespected, his response was a very reluctant, almost offended acceptance. Offended acceptance is a peculiar thing and is very widespread. At one level is the acceptance but below that, and usually very visible, there is contempt towards the person giving the feedback. In this instance, the male manager looked around the room for sympathy and he actually got a lot of it from his male peers who looked down in sham remorse and rolled their eyes dramatically. Though the woman manager made her point and, on the surface of it, the language changed, there was a false shell that remained, with an inside that sniggered at the woman manager and her perceived prissiness.

Interestingly, it was not a situation that was simply between the woman and the man. The man was clearly part of a group that supported him, and that too, visible to all. Even if one or two others may have felt otherwise and seen the woman as ‘having a point’, it would have required a lot of courage to go against the grain and support the woman. These are moments that you experience being part of a minority and that you may be up against a larger group that are the holders of the sub-culture. And being a minority needs both acknowledgement and courage to remain oneself and not be ‘swallowed’ by the majority. And there are people who wish to keep reinforcing their illusion of power, however short-lived and meaningless.

Let’s delve deeper and look at three parts of this issue:

Subcultures become crudified: Without getting into how these subcultures evolve, the important thing is to be able to both experience and name it. Crudification (I believe that may just be a new word) happens. The essence of it is that there is disrespect and often the use of language that is coarse. It is precisely the opposite of ‘sanskritisation’. It becomes a movement, something that people aspire to in a strangely perverse way. It can also be found across cultures. You can see the same happening as sledging in cricket or racial slurs of various kinds. When crudification happens, it is not safe for those at the receiving end. Nobody is imbued with superhuman qualities of taking it in one’s stride. There is a need for protection, a need for creating safety. If this goes unnoticed, the sense of feeling safe disappears and it can become a perfect ground for the perpetuation of offensiveness.

The ability to be offensive in an innocent way: Where does this innocence come from? At the heart of this kind of subculture is power and machismo. It is also very attractive to members who prefer to be on the side of power and inflicting dominance and contempt on others rather than being at the receiving end of feeling demeaned, marginalised and belittled. Any attempt to take the power on can be threatening to one’s own safety, now or later. It is far from easy to deal with and, to my mind, needs careful thought. What all the ladies are doing in the case is a great first step in the naming of the elephant in the room, as it were. And they, as women, need strongly to stand together against this growing menace in India, a menace that will stop at nothing, a rakshasa in the making.

However, the group drawn to this kind of so-called ‘innocent’ demeaning confers immunity on its members and dealing with it may end up being an uphill task. That makes the individuals who are part of the subculture beyond reproach, because according to the anonymous leader, the dominance and demeaning behaviours are part of what is right and normal.

Dealing with the situation: ‘Off with his head’ or regular conversation? This needs to be named. And that too in safe spaces that can be created to have conversations that matter to people. It is not deal-able in one shot. It is about trust and the impact of losing it. Diktat strengthens the cynic. Darkness is its friend. Conversation, or the light of day, in a manner of speaking, burns it. One cannot change the larger cultural pattern but in a small way this can be spoken about at the workplace. Regularly. To deal with it needs the awareness of all concerned.   

The author, Kaushik Gopal,is based in Singapore and looks after the coaching practice for the Center for Creative Leadership in the Asia Pacific region

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 20-04-2015)


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