If you spend any amount of time on social media platforms, you’ve likely seen, or heard about someone getting ‘called out’.
‘Calling out’ usually goes something like this:
- There is a discussion taking place about a sensitive topic (sexism, homophobia, racism, harassment, etc)
- Someone says something controversial, harmful, or incorrect
- Someone else (or a number of people) publicly ‘call out’ the harmful statement, dissect the comment, and provide another view.
In theory, this process can call attention to people’s misconceptions or prejudices. The problem is, sometimes the people ‘calling out’ the initial comment are also judgemental. Journalist, author, and post-colonialist scholar Ruby Hamad has characterised this type of event as an ‘internet pileon’:
What can often start out as well-intentioned and necessary criticism far too quickly devolves into brutish displays of virtual tar-and-feathering. The longer the pile-on goes, the further it drifts from its original intent, the nastier it gets, and, in the ultimate irony, the more it threatens to flip the tables entirely, turning the perpetrator into a victim.
What may have begun as an opportunity to educate someone or move them away from prejudice becomes a multi-layered and unnecessary personal attack.
Calling out poor behaviour certainly has its place; public acknowledgement of poor behaviour, and the need to do better is incredibly powerful. But it’s also a skill set that requires learning, developing, and honing in order to be productive and effective, rather than creating more resentment or disharmony.
Phrases such as “you are being sexist/racist/homophobic” will rarely be met with receptivity. Focusing more on the impact of a particular behaviour/comment opens a much more productive line or communication. For example:
“I need you to stop saying xxx. I disagree, and I want to let you know why I am having a strong reaction”
“It sounds like you’re making some assumptions that we need to unpack”
“As your colleague/peer I need to let you know that your comment about xxx was not ok”.
“I’m uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation, and if it continues I will need to step out”
Some of these phrases may seem a bit wooden or unnatural, and that’s ok. We all need to find language that we’re comfortable with. There are any number of phrases you can use to interrupt behaviour which demonstrates or reinscribes unhelpful biases or prejudice. What’s important is stopping before your interruption turns into a personal attack.
One issue with calling out behaviour in this way is that it’s very immediate, often public, and therefore risks causing shame or embarrassment for a colleague who likely is not aware of why their behaviour is problematic. This isn’t always the best way to go about trying to help your peers learn to be aware of their unconscious biases.
So how else can we challenge and change poor behaviour? How can we learn from each other, without resorting to harmful ‘pile on’ behaviour?
One alternative is a ‘call in’ culture, which means developing a common language of letting each other know when a line has been crossed and needs to be discussed, but this doesn’t happen in front of other colleagues.
For example, in my team we use the phrase “below the line” to indicate when someone has crossed a line in the heat of the moment. If someone says “I think that comment was below the line” it’s a sign that we all need to pause, move on, and return to the comment in question later. We might then have a smaller, or one-to-one conversation about the incident when things have cooled down a little.
The conversation will be based around questions, rather than assumptions. It might begin with “I’m curious as to why you asserted xxx? Can you see how that might be hurtful, or interpreted as [sexist/racist/homophobic/prejudiced/inappropriate]?”
Central to a ‘call in’ culture is also that we ensure that everyone is ok after an incident, including the person who perhaps crossed a line, made a mistake, or behaved inappropriately. Call in culture also needs to transcend hierarchy, and operate as a system of expectations that apply to everyone equally.
In this way, we create a culture in which a mistake or poor choice of words is not the end of productive working relationships. Rather, we create a culture in which we know we will be supported if we make a mistake, and encouraged to learn from them.