During an interview with Fran Kelly this morning on Radio National in regards to the federal budget, Malcom Turnbull did something which surprised me greatly. When Kelly pushed him on a particular issue, Turnbull uttered a very quick and subtle laugh (so subtle it could have been mistaken for a cough), promptly followed up by his measured and diplomatic response to her question.
The laugh that Turnbull emitted during his conversation with Kelly can be categorised as a form of non verbal communication. These are also known as micro aggressions. Such communications can be intentional, however for the most part they are unconscious behaviours which accompany our social interactions. Some of these behaviours are relatively benign, forming part of our social personalities. However often, such behaviours play an important role in the maintenance of social hierarchies.
There is a very subtle social art to expressing power in conversation. Some of these expressions of power can be so subtle that they can be likened to an interpersonal infusion which sets a tone for the exchange. The messages conveyed however are far from subtle, confirming each participant’s respective place in the social hierarchy. In doing so, these messages covertly maintain the systems of social inequality which have been formerly rejected.
The uttering of a laugh in response to a statement to which one does not agree, is an effective way of establishing power in the exchange. The participant then uses this non verbal communication to amplify their verbal response, the message then accompanying the statement being one of authority, condescension and derision. Anyone who has experienced this type of response will understand the force of such messages.
The reason Turnbull’s laugh surprised me is that as Australia’s Prime Minister, I would have expected that he would not need to resort to these forms of non verbal communications to win an argument. However this reflects one of the interesting features of such communications. Very often, such non verbal communications are unconscious behaviours on the part of the participants to the social exchange. Not only do the participants not intend these behaviours, quite often they are not aware of them even after they have happened.
In today’s society, where egalitarian norms are formally endorsed in all sectors of life, such forms of communication enable covert expressions of power to maintain social hierarchies in a climate where the express stating of the message would not be permitted or tolerated (expressly our Prime Minister is required to show absolute support for gender equality).
The fact that this occurs greatly undermines the work being done in promotion of express egalitarian goals. In fact many researchers believe that these communications are one reason that social equality is not being achieved for marginalised groups such as race and gender groups.
One of difficulties with this issue is that one often needs to understand the phenomenon to see it. Further, it is often only those who experience the behaviour as done to them who will notice it. This difficulty only increases the divide between the various social groups who are subject to such communications. Recent research on implicit biases and microaggressions has contributed greatly to our understanding of why and how such communications can occur without our apparent awareness. However more needs to be done in the public sphere to identify such communications when they occur. With greater awareness and understanding, we can all consider our own participation in the web of social power hierarchies.