Ps & Qs Education

Build bridges, don’t break them

Just a few days ago, I met an American woman in an informal setting. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and we exchanged smiles and pleasantries, remarking on the weather. And then she told me, looking rather surprised, “Oh, your English is so good. Your accent is great. Where are you from?”

Despite feeling embarrassed and slightly offended, I thanked her before the conversation continued. You could ask me why I felt embarrassed or offended. After all, she was only remarking how good my English was. But was it really a compliment?

I am certain this lady didn’t have the slightest intention to make me feel awkward. But, it made me think about such seemingly innocent expressions we often use as conversation starters (sentences or phrases we use to start a conversation with someone new). Some of them have the potential to offend someone and even to ruin relationships especially in the workplace. Why?

This particular sentence, “Your English is so good” or something like “You speak English well” could be seen as an instance of racial micro aggression. The term, first coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970 (mostly in the context of racism targeted at African Americans), has become a subject of research. Still considered an emerging field, micro aggression refers to small, implicit and unconscious biases hiding in our minds or the language we use. The problem is these micro aggressions can lead to undesirable consequences that become apparent through language.

Remove biases

For instance, in my case, this American woman thought she was giving me a compliment. After all, here I was, a woman of colour speaking a ‘foreign’ or ‘second’ language. The implicit bias could be that, since English is my second language, I would have trouble expressing myself. I didn’t find it necessary to explain to her that it is actually my first language; the language I think, dream and write in.

Implicit or unconscious biases could be linked to stereotypes we have about certain cultures, countries and nationalities. We forget these are not just a bunch of people who cannot be generalised, but individuals who are distinct and deserve to be treated with respect. Especially in the modern workplace where we work with colleagues from across the world, we need to be very careful when we strike up a conversation.

These biases and stereotypes could be formed as a result of our own limited experiences, incomplete or inaccurate information we have gathered from sources or just plain clichés. I’ve experienced micro aggression in countries outside India where I have had to gently and firmly counter generalised statements about Indian cuisine, religion and language, among others. Surely, Indian cuisine isn’t just about ‘curry’ just as Mexican cuisine isn’t just about salsa. I’ve also come across sweeping generalisations and biases about other cultures in India. No matter where we come from, none of us can afford such misgivings.

A similar instance of mild aggression or disrespect for another culture or language can be seen in the manner we misspell or mispronounce names we are not familiar with. Names give us our identity and, therefore, are precious. I’ve had several experiences when my name has been mispronounced. And I regret not having spoken up against it. When I do not know how to pronounce a name from a language I don’t know, I simply ask that individual. I’d rather display my ignorance and politely find out than mispronounce.

You could argue that I’m being hypersensitive. In fact, there are many who suggest that instances of micro aggression such as these are not really racist or biased; and that people who experience micro aggression (like me) are just too sensitive. But wouldn’t we rather educate ourselves, remove biases, be open minded, rather than offend another human being?Wouldn’t we rather err on the side of caution in these difficult times and build bridges, rather than break them?

When we use conversation starters to build rapport with colleagues or anyone for that matter, perhaps we would do well to think about using sentences that wouldn’t patronise or offend anyone. What we think as innocent may not be construed so by the other. Becoming more aware, learning about unconscious biases and micro aggression and questioning our own biases could make us better professionals and human beings.

The author is a writer and literary journalist. She also heads Corporate Communications at UST. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @anupamaraju

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 10:18:04 PM |

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