This week a story emerged that John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, pulled the hair of a waitress at his local café on a number of occasions, even though she didn’t like it and became very distressed by it. One interesting aspect of it is that the basic facts do not seem to be in dispute: over the course of about six months John Key frequently went into the café, and on many occasions he pulled the waitresses’ ponytail. She tried to ignore it, became distressed by it, and ultimately confronted him. He realized that he was out of order, and apologized.
Let’s make some assumptions:
1. She was genuinely distressed by John Key’s behaviour, but masked or muted those feelings in her interactions with him, at least initially.
2. He did not want to make her feel uncomfortable, and felt that he was, in his own words, just “horsing around.”
(You may or may not agree with these assumptions, but bear with me for now).
So why didn’t he realise that he was making her feel so uncomfortable?
Was he arrogant for not noticing? Did she have the responsibility to make clear to him how she felt?
We find some partial answers in classic findings from Social Psychology. First, consider something called (among other names) “The Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE). Simply put, the FAE is our tendency to explain the actions of others in terms of their personal disposition, and to downplay the effects of the situation in which that person finds him/herself. We experience this all the time. For example, you say hello to someone as they walk past and they say “hi” but keep walking and don’t stop. You might be tempted in that situation to think that they are a little rude (that is, their disposition is negative towards you), but it is equally likely that they are in a hurry and unable to stop (their behaviour is dictated by the situation). Equally, the car that almost cuts you off is driven by an idiot (disposition) and not by someone who was unable to see you because of the angle of the sun (situation).
The FAE leads us to see a simple world in which people act as they think. If they feel bad, they tell us. If they don’t say anything, they must be content. If you do something and the person doesn’t complain, you assume that they are joining in the joke, because if they weren’t they’d tell you (that is, their behaviour shows what they actually feel).
Of course, in many situations we are unable to show our true feelings. Sometimes it is because we want to present a particular face to friends. But in situations of power imbalance there are obviously many reasons that you might feel that you could not act according to your disposition. So anyone interacting with someone further up in a hierarchy will feel constrained from behaving freely – because of the social situation that they find themselves in.
In other words, we tend to see people as behaving according to what they feel, yet in hierarchies those at the bottom are much less free to act than those at the top. Inevitably, people at the top are at risk of misinterpreting the feelings of others.
Another bias we all struggle with is “confirmation bias.” The world is a complex place so it is hard work to figure out what it all means. It is much easier to hold a view about it, and then just check that the world continues to conform to that view. So, you might be convinced that climate change is real and influenced by humans, or you might think that it is all a hoax. As you sample information about it, you are probably drawn to opinions that are consistent with yours, and find yourself ignoring evidence to the contrary (at which point I need to point out that for the latter view you are ignoring a LOT of evidence…).
So again, assume that you’re the Prime Minister and you hold the view that everyone at the café is having fun “horsing around” with you. You are unlikely to verify with every staff member that this is true. Rather, you interpret their behaviour in ways that are consistent with this view (e.g., “she gave me that dirty look because she knows I’ll think it is funny”). So even when the waitress is displaying antipathy to the hair pulling, you think she’s in on the joke.
The point of this is not to let John Key off the hook; quite the opposite. We each have a responsibility to ensure that we are not making other people uncomfortable in our presence, and we have to understand that it may be difficult to verify whether this is happening. This difficulty in knowing why people act as they do increases with power differential, so when you’re the Prime Minister it is about as great as it can get. Yet, it happens to all of us. If you’re a teacher, or a coach, or a boss, or clergy, or a parent, or an elder sibling, you can find yourself in this situation.
And of course, where power differentials go, so to do discrimination; sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The Prime Minister will be quick to say that he intended nothing sexist by his actions, and in terms of his conscious thoughts he may be right. But even if that’s true, the simple fact is that in this social architecture, those at the top setting the interactions are likely to be predominantly Pakeha men and those at the bottom are likely to be women, non-Pakeha, etc.
So let’s demand clarity around what happened in this situation. But the greater lesson is for us all. Don’t assume everyone else is in on the joke. Because maybe they are just playing along for your benefit, and your natural instinct will be to assume they think you’re great.