Banal binaries: How power plays into how we communicate

At work, I like to observe who:

requests v. demands
is direct v. is indirect
responds v. ignores

The data reveals a lot about how people wield power, especially subconsciously.

Requests are often, “when you get a chance, could you please do X? I would like it by Z date.”

Demands are, “you need to do X by Z date.”

But it gets more complicated:

An indirect demand could look like, “we need to do X ASAP.” “We” in a lot of situations is an unspoken substitute for “you.” ASAP is often an ambiguous urgency. power becomes a critical piece of this.

“We” can hold a collaborative tone when power is equal and trust is shared.

As with many things, “we”—a banal pronoun—can become complicated when you look at power.

Going back to the request v. demand, “we need to…ASAP” can be code for “I want you to do this by a time I haven’t disclosed but will drive urgently toward. When done, I’ll take credit.”

There is often a passive understanding between both parties that “we” means “you” and “ASAP” means “I will move the deadline (up) as it suits me.”

Situations like this are anxiety-ridden, especially for many of us neurodivergent folks.

Now, this is when ignoring comes into play.

As a highly anxious, high producing person, I often ask a lot of upfront questions (trauma is a strong journalist) to avoid the ambiguity that the above situation creates.

Often I notice those questions just… go unanswered. now here you might respond “assume positive intent.”

And I would respond that “I don’t assume any intent, but observe all impact.” It’s always possible someone isn’t intentionally ignoring me; an ADHD person like me knows that especially well.

But the impact remains: not getting clarity leads to massive anxiety and ambiguity.

The ignoring is often a passive and subconscious wielding of power in at least two ways.

  1. People in power are used to being accommodated by people who only speak when spoken to; the expectation is that the helpers just know what to do, and do it without disturbing the helped. helpers should know.

Failure to just know are an issue of the helper’s “lack of expertise or initiative” not of the helped’s poor and lacking communication.

The person with less power is far more likely to be blamed for dropping the ball, and here, the former collective “we” becomes “they.”

  1. The person can later decide if the passive indirect demand was actually important or not. If not important, they can easily come back and say, “oh, it wasn't that important.” If it is, they can dump the blame, “oh, I thought you had it sorted.” Retroactive hindsight is a thing, so depending on how things went, they have set up an exit for themselves and a trap for you.

Does this sound Machiavellian? It is, and also, I think that more often than not, corporatism and capitalism encourage/require us to be Machiavellian without even acknowledging it. In many ways, this is worse because we aren't even aware of or intending to commit a lot of this harm. We are even less able to control our harm here. It's not intentional on our part, but it is intentional design by the system.

The system always favours the ones with the most power and is designed to passively and subversely support that group. The person/people with less power is/are far more likely to be blamed for dropping the ball, and here, the former collective “we” becomes “they.”

On the flip side “annoying” helpers like me will insist on getting answers and keep a paper trail (trauma the journalist!) and we are seen as “difficult, unaccommodating, needs a lot of direction.”

The game is often manipulated to be lose-lose for the less powerful.

Now, when I say I observe this it doesn’t mean I isolate and document each interaction. I understand we live in a pandemic and many of our actions are banal and unpredictable.

I get it. I’m here too. However… what I do mean is that I observe these binaries from the first paragraph as patterns, especially at scale of dozens of interactions. Patterns of power, even if passive and subconscious, often tell me a lot. They show me ways and means to protect myself at work.

This entire power dynamic is one of the most harmful and yet quiet ways that white supremacy culture thrives in the workplace.

It’s a way that many mediocre majoritised people thrive with little effort while exceptional minoritised people barely survive with a lot of effort.

This power dynamic, like white supremacy, goes unnoticed because it is baked into the architecture of the organisation, the politics of the workers, and ultimately, what it takes to survive.

I hope this thread opens up more awareness to it, and conscious actions to resist.

Questions and Corrections 📌

For questions, please reach out on Twitter! I can't promise to answer all your questions, but I'll try my best!

For corrections (typos, factual inaccuracies), please file a GitHub issue.

Requests v. demands, indirect vs. direct language, and responding and ignoring are all ways we communicate our power in daily interactions, even if subconsciously and quietly

Tue Oct 12 2021 10:04:22 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

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