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Dec 11, 2022

Teasing in the workplace

Teasing is generally accepted among close individuals across most cultures, but the degree of closeness required varies significantly. These variations can be challenging to discern, particularly as they can differ widely even within subcultures that coexist closely. In some communities (often more homogeneous), people don't need to be friends to tease each other humorously. In others, it can take years of acquaintance before any level of teasing is considered acceptable. When subcultures intersect across gender, class, and race, navigating these multiple cultural norms becomes even more complex. Regional differences also come into play, which is why quick-witted New Yorkers may encounter issues when moving to the Midwest or the West. The person doing the teasing might be saying, "Okay, now we're friends, so I will poke fun at you." It is a symbolic act of recognition and intimacy. At times, it might be a request for closeness, akin to asking, "will you be my friend?" However, the recipient may not interpret it this way and might see it as a sign of aggression or at least, poor taste. This scenario creates a typical cultural conflict, where differing assumptions lead to opposing interpretations of behavior.

Teasing can be seen as a form of verbal aggression masked as a joke. What makes it amusing is its proximity to real aggression or its highlighting of actual faults and blunders. This is why it's so fraught with risk and prone to misunderstanding. The rule in the workplace is straightforward: refrain from teasing unless you are absolutely certain that the other person interprets it as you intend. Establishing such safe boundaries usually requires several years of close interactions.

This rule extends to all forms of humor. In any conversation, I might voice around a quarter of the jokes that come to mind. The rest are too risky, and so, I suppress them. Yes, I have a twisted sense of humor, but I keep it under control. I hope other people do the same. All humor is a form of playful aggression. As Henry Bergson noted, "the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart." In a diverse workplace, one must exercise caution when joking, especially at another person's expense. One might be playing a macho character as a joke or self-parody, but co-workers may not understand this and take your performance too seriously. It's not because they lack a sense of humor; rather, their cultural norms and life experiences might be too different from yours. We no longer live or work in culturally homogeneous groups. Thus, curb your urge to tease and joke. Opt for other means of connection. Kindness and politeness usually work better and have broader appeal. The Scandinavian style of self-deprecating humor also tends to work well.

Dec 5, 2022

Double consciousness for Russians

We understand others by finding glimpses of their experiences in our own. It is never the same, but sometimes what we experience “rhymes” with those of others.

I was thinking of W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of double consciousness when last week an anti-war and anti-Putin TV anchor misspoke and referred to the invading Russian army as “our army,” and said that he wants to help Russian soldiers to get better equipment. This created an outrage in much of Eastern Europe, understandably. People are on edge, and they reacted harshly.

W. E. B. Du Bois described the phenomenon like this: “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This is not the same, but similar to what this anchor was feeling: He still maintains his Russian identity and feels kinship with Russian soldiers who are cold and hungry on the frontlines of the war they did not start. He may think they are stupid idiots, but somehow related to him. Like many of us, he wants that invading army to be defeated, and his homeland to lose the war it started.

Ukrainians obviously do not feel the split; their hatred for the invaders is both justified and unproblematic. The anti-Putin Russians do. The horror of the story is that one is unable to completely disentangle oneself from the invading horde. One experiences pain and compassion for Ukrainians, and pain and compassion to their tormentors. A person like that looks at one’s self through the eyes of others, and yet retaining his own identity.

Again, I am not equating the two experiences; the power dynamic and histories are very different. Yet, parallels like this open a little window into how confused and painful divided identities can be.