IS "WORD VIOLENCE" A NORM IN
"For me, words are a
form of action, capable of influencing
~ Ingrid Bengis
Remember the childhood chant?
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words
can never hurt me?"
Well, it turns out that's only true from one
narrow perspective, and actually untrue to
a fair degree.
Apparently, words can in fact "leave a
On one hand, it's true that we all have a choice
in what we say to ourselves and others, and we
have a choice in how much we allow others' words
(spoken, written, and "sent via body language,"
etc.) to harm us.
These are the areas where we hold responsibility,
and taking that responsibility can make an
On the other hand, recent insights from
contemporary neuroscience and consciousness
research confirm that negative words, if not very
consciously minimized or countered, can have very
In the Ivy Sea & Sophia's
Children Power of the Word article
series, I'll explore various perspectives about
"the power of words," how our individual choices
can make a positive or negative difference, and
how such "word magic" can be used for good or for
harm by individuals and in organizations.
This article takes a
look at how word-choice can be a form of
consciously employed — but subtle — violence,
both in individual interactions and
in organizational systems. Choosing more
consciously and becoming more skillful begins with
a more conscious awareness of, in this case, some
of the forms of "word violence."
Once aware, we can assess the degree to which we
contribute to, practice, or tolerate "word
violence," and find skillful ways to minimize our
own practice of it and reduce our complicity with
others who practice "word violence."
When words are used as a
form of subtle violence
Often, when we think of violence, we think of the
very overt, loud, obvious kind — primarily
physical violence, but also in the form of "over
the top," very loud, confrontational (and
frightening) yelling, screaming or threatening. To
be sure, these are examples of "word violence."
But there is also a more subtle and insidious
form of "word violence," and this occurs much more
frequently because it "goes under the radar" and
masks itself as "normal."
While it can be easily dismissed or overlooked
because of its quieter presentation, it can do
serious damage none-the-less, by creating stress,
fostering oppression, deflating motivation,
curtailing creativity, and other unfortunate
results — including leading the way to more overt
forms of violence.
In many organizations, and in certain
organizational or group cultures, "word violence"
can be systemic and even institutionalized.
In such cultures, many individuals may
unconsciously practice "word violence" as a norm,
both to perpetuate (e.g. fit in and/or survive) in
a competitive, scarcity-based and otherwise
dysfunctional culture, or to actually thrive in
such a culture.
Five common forms of
In individual interactions, one who uses the
power of words in subtly violent ways may be doing
so consciously, in a purposeful effort to
manipulate, or unconsciously, out of his or her
Examples of subtle "word violence" can
show up as malicious gossip, passive-aggression,
purposeful withholding, inconsistency, incivility,
and bullying, to name a few.
Over my years as a communication consultant
specializing in the more difficult, challenging
communication issues, I've seen all of these and
For now, though, we'll take a closer look at the
In the case of passive-aggression,
"word violence" can manifest as a result
of the passive-aggressive's strategy of saying one
thing while intending and doing another.
For example, in many organizations, a person with
a tendency to act passive-aggressively may give
agreement or approval while in conversation with
you, but then take a different course of action
than the one you agreed upon, fail to participate
altogether, or actually sabotage your effort by
withholding information or brewing discontent or
confusion among colleagues.
When you confront a passive-aggressive about
these behaviors, he or she will deny them
outright, or even deflect accusations or blame
back at you. In these ways, his or her choice of
words — or the choice to withhold certain words —
can be a form of subtle violence.
Someone who consciously withholds
is practicing another form of "word violence."
withholder may elect to withhold praise,
feedback, agreement, or information for the
purposes of gaining some measure of control or
having some specific impact on you.
Withholding may be a tool used by a
passive-aggressive person, or may simply be the
communication-control strategy of choice. Either
way, withholding can escalate from lower-impact
word-violence to a form of mental abuse.
By withholding praise, feedback, support, or
information, for example, the withholder increases
his or her odds of "throwing you off-balance" and
thus making you feel uncertain about what you're
When leaders withhold praise or other
information, his or her staff members are unclear
on their roles and priorities, and would most
likely suffer greater feelings of insecurity,
lower morale, and general stress.
Because these are very often ill-effects that
result from the person's decision to withhold,
it's a form of "word violence."
Withholding draws its power from the imprinting
of an authoritarian system, in which people have
been trained by more overt communications —
including body language — so that ultimately the
overt words or facial/body expression are no
longer needed in order for the person in the
perceived position of authority to manipulate the
situation to his or her advantage.
In an interaction in which this dynamic is
present, a person simply chooses to withhold at
certain points in the conversation, thus
triggering deeply held patterns.
The ideal outcome in the withholder's mind is for
the other person to capitulate his or her will and
succumb to or "fall into line" with the
withholder's desires or interests.
Unless the other person consciously disentangles
him or herself, the cultural patterns will tend to
play out in the withholder's favor, which is why
he or she uses this strategy.
As will be mentioned later in this article,
withholding (like any of these examples) can
escalate to become a form of more overt bullying,
when a person uses withholding in an attempt to
throw another off-balance and thus increase his or
her position of perceived power.
Inconsistency, a.k.a. The Moving Target
be another form of "word violence," particularly
if a person is aware of — or consciously chooses —
inconsistency as a means to an end (usually a
feeling of control).
Someone who is inconsistent may tell you
different things at different times, or tell
different things to different people, thus
creating confusion and uncertainty.
For example, the inconsistent person may give an
assignment, and then when the other person is well
along with the work and checks in regarding
progress, may blithely say, "Oh that. We're not
doing that anymore. Didn't I tell you?"
Another manifestation of inconsistency is when a
person "runs hot and cold" — being friendly and
supportive one minute, and distant or curt the
next, with the effect of keeping others in a state
of perpetual imbalance. One common saying for this
manifestation is when a person "pulls the rug from
beneath your feet."
Inconsistency can also escalate from mere
unskillfulness to a type of "word violence" if an
individual repeatedly and consciously demonstrates
inconsistency between what he or she says or
demands and what he or she actually does or
can be another form of "word violence" that
includes passive-aggressive behavior, withholding,
inconsistency, bullying, and other forms of
communication and behavior that most people would
identify as rude, uncooperative, hostile, or
Examples of chronic incivility might include not
returning phone calls or emails, not complying
with requests from colleagues, lying, blaming,
extreme curtness, or withholding information or
Such forms of incivility, according to several
studies, have increased over the past decade as a
result of, among other things, the perceived
insecurity that has inflicted the workplace, and a
seeming increase in workplace aggression, nonstop
change, and competitiveness.
As with other forms of "word violence,"
incivility can escalate into more overt forms of
violence, and, at a minimum, jeopardizes
enjoyment, satisfaction, and overall well-being —
each of which affects an individual's ability to
participate fully and to the highest of his or her
When "word violence" occurs in the form of bullying, it can
begin to seem less covert and start to appear on
the radar of either other individuals or,
depending on the impact or results, within the
realm of organizational rejection of the behavior.
The latter depends largely on the organization in
question, since some have lower levels of
tolerance for bullying and subtle violence, while
others are thoroughly infected with and tolerate
such dubious practices.
According to some experts, bullying within
organizations has increased over the last ten to
fifteen years. Bullying may include overt
hostility in the form of yelling, name-calling,
baiting, or belittling; or it may include the more
subtle but no less insidious forms of "word
violence" that I've highlighted above.
Derisive comments — including those which are
veiled as humor or friendliness — can also be a
form of bullying and incivility.
Typical examples include comments or "jokes" that
derisively refer to gender, spiritual practice,
race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or
One clue is that such comments or "jokes" aren't
funny, and are often intended to diminish or make
someone uncomfortable, or sow seeds of dissention
and create factions — none of which are productive
by any definition in any kind of group or
In fact, such "word violence," like other forms,
tends to have high individual and organizational
costs, even though it is often tolerated and
practiced to some degree in most workplaces.
Interestingly, the conscious withholding of a
comment or feedback that most average people would
consider a norm can also be a form of bullying —
in this case, the bully is manipulating another by
purposely withholding approval or agreement.
Is "word violence" on
Certainly the tenor of the last several
presidential election campaigns in the U.S. alone
— and many more examples if we watch the
(so-called) 'news' — exemplifies a markedly higher
degree of incivility and "word violence" which
included name-calling, withholding information,
inconsistency, lying, bullying, and other forms of
Unfortunately, this seems to have rippled outward
into the hallways and cubicles of Corporate
America as well, although it was certainly a clear
trend well before now (the late-Nineties dot-com
and hi-tech cultures come to mind, where brazenly
overt incivility reached epidemic levels).
And unfortunately, with recent research showing
the rise in narcissism, the sharp decline
in empathy, and an uptick in rudeness and
even bullying (despite the increased and welcome
awareness about it), it seems that dysfunctional
communication and the more acute abusive behaviors
aren't going away yet.
Indeed, like other forms of subtle violence,
"word violence" in some form, and to varying
degrees of overtness, is woven deeply into the
fabric of traditional Corporate America, and is a
norm that needs to evolve from this lower form
into a higher form of relating and working
Currently, the lower form is simply transported
from place to place, from interaction to
interaction, leaving destruction in its wake.
Like the "broken window" phenomenon — where one
broken window will invite more vandalism and
degeneration — subtle forms of violence, when
tolerated as a norm, simply acts as fuel for more
egregious breaches of ethics and humanity. We need
to look no further than the headlines for
"Word violence" can be so insidious that, over
a relatively short time, the standard falls
dramatically and yet what is considered "normal"
or what is tolerated increases, creating an
increasingly vulgar, crude, and cruel culture.
So incivility and "word violence" soon become a
new "norm." In this case, history tells us that
such a norm only leads to group, organizational,
or societal dysfunction and ultimately
Systemic or organizational violence — a feature
of "corporate psychopathy" — ultimately comes down
to various individuals choosing to act in a way
that is uncivil, violent, manipulative, or
otherwise disregarding of the ill-effect on others
or the common good (including shared resources,
As with any relatively neutral tactic or
strategy, the effect of one's choice of words or
communication strategy is really, for better or
worse, influenced by the underlying intention and
desired goals. By being more conscious of our own
intentions and choices — and by refusing to be
treated with or tolerate incivility, or be on the
receiving end of "word violence" — we can begin to
slowly raise the norm to a more skillful,
compassionate, and productive level.
Copyright 2016, Jamie
S. Walters. If you'd like to reprint and share
this article, send Jamie an email to info 'at'
ivysea 'dot' com.
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