“It Started With A Whisper” – Kol Nidre / Erev Yom Kippur 2015

“Gail, I need to talk with you about something this afternoon. Can you come by my office at 3 p.m.?” Adam Galinsky, who was then an assistant professor, thought his request to a doctoral student in his department was innocuous enough. So he didn’t give it a second thought. Gail showed up right on time. Galinsky thought she seemed a little nervous but plunged right in with some minor changes he wanted to make to a joint research project. When they were finished, he was taken aback by her stern admonishment: “Never do that to me again!”

Do what? – he wondered?

“Scare the hell out of me by saying you needed to talk to me,” she said. “I spent the whole day obsessing about whether I was in trouble.”

“Initially, I thought that Gail must be particularly oversensitive,” Galinsky wrote in a recent New York Times essay. “But not long after that, the chairwoman of my department, a full professor who would one day vote on my tenure case, asked me to come and see her later in the day. For the next five hours, I was consumed with fear that I had done something wrong – until we met and I learned that the topic was also insignificant.”

These two situations got Galinsky to thinking about how we use language – and the power that words have, especially when spoken by a person with a lot of power to a person who has much less. He gives it the descriptive name, “the power amplification effect.” And on these Days of Awe, it’s a reminder that sometimes it’s not just about what we say, or how we say it – but to whom we address our words.

A few years ago, I stood on this bima and delivered a High Holy Day sermon on civility in public discourse. But it hardly pays to plead for that anymore. Especially not in a presidential election season, when candidates already have been tagging each other as jerk, jackass, or just plain stupid. The language used by politicians and celebrities of course trickles down to the blogosphere and Twitter, where name-calling and insults are almost a requirement, especially if what you’re looking for is validation of your own offensive, narrow-minded slurs.

So my new tactic is to appeal to one person at a time in the hopes that each of us might recognize that we, too, are people with power, which means that when we speak, people listen. And sometimes we may be oblivious to the impact of our words.

Galinsky wrote that there are three types of communication that become amplified by power: direct communication, silence, and ambiguity. Each of us might use – or misuse – our words in any of these situations.

Let’s start with direct communication. Simple. Straightforward. What could possibly go wrong? Galinsky relates that when he was a first-year doctoral student, he shared an idea in class on the very first day. The professor dismissed his comment by saying simply, “That is completely wrong,” violently shaking his head. Said Galinsky: “I was mortified.”

But a few weeks later, he passed the same professor in the hallway. “He stopped me with a smile and said he had enjoyed reading one of my papers,” wrote Galinsky. And then brightened his student’s day by adding: “You are a lovely writer.”

Now, I don’t know if the professor had second thoughts about shooting down Galinsky’s idea, thereby humiliating him on the first day in front of the whole class. But he certainly did not miss the chance to make up for it, making sure that Galinsky knew he did not consider him a lost cause. More than that, he took the opportunity to build up Galinsky’s self-esteem and his attitude toward the teacher and the class.

He understood the power that a professor has over a student, especially one who aspires to be a teacher himself, and who looks to his professors for validation. As Rabbi Yossi taught: “May my portion be with those who inspire pupils to enter and sit in the house of study, and not with those who inspire them to rise up and leave the house of study.” Inspiration and support worked for Galinsky, who’s now a professor at Columbia Business School.

We generally think of direct communication as a good thing. But, clearly, that’s not always the case. Not when it embarrasses or humiliates or debases. Not when it is said off-handedly, or carelessly, or is needlessly critical. Not when that criticism is amplified by the power you hold over somebody else.

And especially not when those words are intentionally meant to inflict pain or discomfort, or to reinforce the power of one individual over another.

This past year, an Orthodox rabbi in Washington DC, Barry Freundel, was sentenced to six and a half years in jail for “mikveh peeping” – using hidden cameras and recording devices to spy on naked young women in the ritual bath attached to his synagogue.

At least 100 women were victimized, 18 of whom testified against him. They were put into that situation largely through Rabbi Freundel’s emotional and verbal abuse, which he used to control them. They were young, vulnerable women who came to him for conversion to Judaism. He warned them constantly that their fate was in his hands, that he could do as he pleased with them, that he could hold up their futures and leave them in spiritual limbo indefinitely if they didn’t comply with his demands. With some, he kept up the threats for years. And they were so afraid and intimidated, most never said a thing until other victims brought his actions to light.

Just last week, the American Nurses’ Association declared it would no longer tolerate abuse of nurses in the workplace. That shouldn’t be necessary, should it? But among other things, 42 percent of RN’s who responded to a survey said they’d been bullied by people with authority over them. That included not only physical intimidation but hostile remarks, verbal threats, spreading gossip, and intimidation. And this is in health-care settings, where you’d think there would be a high priority on creating a work environment that is safe and nurturing.

Starting this year, all of us who work with religious school children are considered mandated reporters by the state when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse. We’ve had to take classes and receive clearances. Most of the time we think of physical or sexual abuse when it comes to kids. But emotional abuse also counts as child abuse, and it often plays out in verbal threats and criticism. Constantly belittling a child – telling him he is stupid or worthless, criticizing her, blaming her for somebody else’s mistakes, threatening abandonment.

It often goes hand in hand with physical or sexual abuse. You’d better not tell anyone or your mother will hate you. You’d better keep our secret because nobody else wants you.

All direct communication. The words of a person in power to a person with little power can be debilitating, and even deadly.

But silence can be devastating as well. My Grandmom Freda always said: If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. But sometimes silence carries with it implicit criticism. Sometimes withholding important information is a potent weapon that people in power use, often in inappropriate ways.

Before we moved here to Pennsylvania, Don served as the editorial director of a magazine in Lexington, Kentucky. It was part of a large publishing company based in California. For months, there were rumors that the company was in poor financial health, that staff would be let go, that projects would be shelved, that income was being diverted under the table from this publication to others in the company.

But the owner never said a thing. He continued to have staff and freelancers do their jobs – while the paychecks to contract employees like Don became more and more infrequent.
One day, each employee received a letter from the owner via Federal Express, informing them that he had folded the magazine and locked down the building. Nobody would even be able to go back to retrieve personal possessions. Freelancers got stiffed, some of them owed tens thousands of dollars.

After years of lawsuits, they all got about five cents on the dollar, after working in good faith for somebody who deceived them with silence. Had the owner – the person with the power over them – had he been honest with them about the company’s financial condition, they would have had the information they needed to make professional choices that were best for themselves and their families. They would have been sad, but they would not have been left emotionally drained and financially distressed.

And what about silence in situations involving physical danger? Adam Galinsky relates in that essay that his brother, Michael, was once on a flight from Colorado to Montana when, without warning, the plane dropped nearly a thousand feet in 12 seconds. It happened so quickly that a flight attendant hit her head on the ceiling and was knocked unconscious, and an infant flew up in the air and back two rows – thankfully uninjured. But the cabin crew maintained silence, never telling the passengers what was going on. Without information, Michael felt unsafe. Of course his mind went racing to the worst-case scenarios.

Some people do understand the devastating consequences of silence. Last week I mentioned the wonderful surgeon who excised the tumor from my breast. She personally took the time to call me late on a Friday afternoon to tell me that, contrary to her preliminary conclusion, I did indeed have cancer. She said she didn’t think she should be holding onto information through the weekend without giving it to me. She understood how terrifying it is to be in a state of limbo because of somebody else’s silence.

Between silence and direct communication there is the issue of ambiguity. And that’s where Adam Galinsky really got himself into trouble. The phrase “I need to talk to you later” may have seemed straightforward to him when he said it to a student. But when his supervisor said it to him, he realized that it really wasn’t. Why does she want to talk to me? – he wondered. Am I in trouble? Am I getting fired? What did I do wrong? Galinsky wrote: “Because the powerful have the capacity to punish others, seemingly straightforward requests can incite unchecked worry.”

The pilots could have provided at least a little information to reassure frantic passengers that their lives were not in danger. The owner of Don’s magazine company could have been open and honest with employees whose livelihoods depended on the paychecks that he signed. And, as Galinsky himself learned, when you’re the one in a position of power over another, it helps to add information to the mix. “I need to talk to you later” can become: “I need to see you later today, but don’t worry – it’s nothing bad.”

The “power amplification effect” takes place anywhere and any time one person has power over another. The inherent inequality in such a relationship gives more psychological force to the words of the powerful. That can apply to a doctor, a rabbi, a pilot, or an employer. But it also can apply to a bigger child, a more experienced colleague, even a friend with information to share or to withhold.

Sadly, Galinsky writes that, according to his research, the powerful express less gratitude and less praise than those with less power.

We must understand the power each of us has to change that dynamic, day by day, in situations big and small. As an example, the Talmud tells us of this dispute that raged for three years between the disciples of the two great sages Hillel and Shammai:

“The students at one school insisted, ‘Jewish law is in accord with our views,’ while the students in the other said, ‘No, Jewish law is in accord with our views.’ Eventually, a Bat Kol, a Divine Voice, came forth from heaven and declared: ‘The utterances of this group and the utterances of that group are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to the School of Hillel.’

“But since both are the words of the living God, by what merit did the School of Hillel have Jewish law affixed to their rulings? Because they were kindly and humble, and taught not only their own rulings but also those of the School of Shammai – even teaching Shammai’s rulings before their own. This teaches us that one who humbles himself will be exalted by God will be exalted; but the one who exalts himself will be humbled by God.”

The “power amplification effect” can be used to control another person, to get what you what from him, or simply to toy with him – to build yourself up by knocking somebody else down.
But it also can be a force for good. We can use it to build up somebody’s self-esteem. We can empower others to grow in their careers, or to make the best personal decisions for themselves. We can alleviate stress and anxiety in inherently stressful situations. We can show respect for others’ abilities. We can be disciples of Hillel.

All it takes is a word or two of praise, a sincere thank you for a job well done, an important piece of information shared. And an acknowledgement that how we use our power defines us as ethical human beings.

May we learn to use our power wisely and justly. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin


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