I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dismissive people, power, and all that

Why do we dismiss somebody’s opinion instead of considering what they have to say?

Imagine the situation: a dozen people are discussing around a table. Some never say anything (the “listeners”), while others speak, either on their own initiative or in reaction to someone else’s opinions (the “speakers”).

Let’s concentrate on how the speakers react to what other speakers say. A couple of them behave very differently depending on who’s speaking. In some cases, they listen attentively, even taking notes, and respond with pertinent comments. In other cases, they start reading something, shake their heads, look towards the ceiling, or say something to one of their neighbours; then, often after a few seconds, they interrupt the speaker with something that has nothing to do with what was being said.

Does it sound familiar? It probably does, because those know-it-all, closed-minded, and disrespectful people are everywhere. I have observed them all my life.

For me, when dealing with other people (actually, when dealing with anything at all!), respect is fundamental. I base all my relationships on respecting and being respected. One of my core beliefs is that, no matter how better in some ways I think I might be, nothing gives me the right to dismiss or even humiliate other human beings.

Are these “dismissers” unaware of being offensive or are they aware of it but don’t care? And why do they do it?

Over the years, I have noticed that some of the dismissers (although not all) are courtesans. That is, followers. They like to rub shoulders with people in power, and tend to hop around their “masters” wagging their tails, like little dogs hoping for a pat on the back or a scrap of food. It’s very unfortunate that their brown nosing often lifts them to positions of responsibility or influence. When this happens, they tend to be very abrupt with their subordinates, while expecting from them unconditional love. With their behaviour, they perpetuate a culture of dismissiveness and disrespect.

This train of thought leads me to considering what is at the basis of power. A lot has been written about the bases of power since 1959, when French and Raven published their study titled “The bases of social power”. There are now several theories along those lines that involve a variable number of factors. A widely accepted theory is based on the following seven types of power:
  • Coercive power: ability to mete out punishment.
  • Reward power: ability to bestow rewards.
  • Legitimate power: obtained as part of the position or job one holds.
  • Referent power: due to being liked and respected.
  • Connection power: ability to influence powerful people.
  • Expert power: due to the abilities and skills one possesses.
  • Informational power: due to having access to valuable or important information.

I am a bit at a loss in identifying somebody whose coercive and reward powers do not come as a result of some other type of power. In organisations and also in society in general, coercive and reward powers are part of legitimate power. Somebody you love can reward or punish you without any legitimate power, but isn’t it because [s]he already has referent power over you?

For a different reason, I also don’t feel entirely comfortable with the concept of referent power. I agree that when you are liked and respected by people, you have power over them. But how did you gain that appreciation? This type of power seems to originate, at least to a large extent, from other powers. If somebody dismisses me from the very start because I am in no position of power, don’t know powerful people, and is not immediately apparent what I know and can do, how can I possibly gain his/her respect?

There are some people that you cannot help liking from the moment you meet them, either because they are beautiful and sexy, because of their penetrating gaze, or because of some other physical features they possess. Some politicians and actors have this “presence” that makes them the centre of attention. This seems a subset of referent power, but I would classify it separately, perhaps with the term “charisma”, to distinguish it from the referent power that can be acquired over time.

In most cases, whether you are or not dismissed from the very start depends on your position (direct or by connection) or charisma (or both). Unless people have had the opportunity to learn about you beforehand, they will not recognise in you an expert and/or a holder of worthwhile information.

Charisma is purely irrational. It’s mojo. Magic. Sometimes, people call it “natural leadership”, but it has nothing to do with being able to make good decisions on the basis of limited information and then follow them up by motivating people into action. Although, perhaps, without a dose of charisma, you can manage people but not really lead them. I’m not concerned about charisma, because being charmed by charismatic people doesn’t make people dismissive of others.

The dismissive people are those who are really only interested in what’s good for them. They don’t care about your feelings or anybody else’s. That’s why they only listen to the boss, those who can influence the boss, and people who can tell them something they might use. Everybody else is a nuisance. Nothing more than a distraction. They have no patience for them.

These people don’t see others as treasure chests of feelings, life experiences, emotions, and ideas. In charities and other volunteer-based organisations, they often are the zealots who like to be in the “inner circle” and use efficiency as an excuse for ignoring you.

So far, I have described a somewhat extreme case of dismissers, but, unfortunately, the world is full of mild dismissers. That is, narrow-minded people who haven’t managed to see beyond the confines of their parochial upbringings; myopic people who perceive novelty and difference as threats rather than opportunities to broaden their minds.

Indeed, very many tend to ignore, avoid, reject, or even despise those who appear to be different from them. It does make sense to link up with people with whom you share experiences, opinions, or tastes. But I found that the vast majority of people become defensive when they discover that you have made important life choices different from theirs. It is as if your existence were enough to undermine the raison d’ être of their whole life.

Perhaps I am digressing, but what I’m trying to say in my contorted way is that, ultimately, the dismissiveness I have been talking about is nothing else than selfishness combined with a very common form of obtuseness.

I have a further reflection concerning expert and informational powers.

When applying for jobs during my IT and management career, I was almost always been asked to provide proof of knowledge and experience related to the job I was applying for. Obviously, why should a company hire somebody who needs training, rather than somebody else who already knows what it’s all about?

And yet, there is another factor that is almost invariably dismissed: how quickly can the new hire learn? How long will it take for him/her to become more productive than somebody who has previous knowledge of the matter but is inflexible and slow in learning?

Once, after migrating to Germany, I applied for a job with Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm in Hamburg. I had only studied German, ab initio, for four months. And yet, the entire interview with MBB was conducted in German. I didn’t get the job because they wanted to have somebody with a better knowledge of German. How stupid was that? If I could be interviewed in German after a few months, how long would it have taken me to progress to the point where my language would no longer be a problem? Indeed, I then got a job with AEG-Telefunken and quickly became a productive member of the group.

An endemic problem of our society is the failure to distinguish between knowledge and intellectual capabilities. When talking about a computer, very few would confuse microprocessor speed with memory or disk drive capacity. But when it comes to human minds, the amount of information that one has been able to cram into his brain is often considered proof of intelligence.

We can discuss the validity of IQ tests to measure intelligence, but one thing is clear: the higher the IQ, the more a person can perceive complex patterns, analyse problems, and extract logical information, because that’s what IQ tests measure. It means that high-IQ people can more easily acquire technical and scientific knowledge, where the main difficulty is in understanding rather than remembering.

Then, why is IQ a taboo subject? Is it because people are afraid that theirs is too low? Is it a mind-equivalent of most males’ fear of having too small a penis?


  1. I like the fact that "penis" was the word with which you chose to end your post. :D

  2. MMmmm... I just re-read my post and found it quite interesting. :-) I also realised that I said mid-equivalent instead of mind-equivalent.

    What do you mean with your comment? I suppose it is positive because you close it with a big smile, but I don't understand it...