Thursday, February 8, 2007

So who's the boss?

Posted by Double Y at 7:20 PM
Language Reveals Who the Boss Is

Who's in charge here? Who's the boss? Factories have a boss. Work crews have a boss — the foreman. The coach is the boss of a team. In the classroom, the teacher is boss. While some couple relationships are democratic, others definitely also have a boss.

You can often tell who the boss is by the language s/he uses. Here are some examples of boss talk. Check them against the talk that prevails in your relationship. If you find that your relationship is "boss-ridden," pay attention to how language communicates authority and make changes.

-"We're not discussing that." Or "No, we're not going to do that." Or "This discussion is finished." The boss claims the right to speak for both people. His/her use of "we" communicates "I'm in charge of this relationship." The boss also defines what is and is not permissible. S/he gets to say, "That topic is off limits."

-"You just can't avoid screwing up, can you?" In boss-ridden relationships, the right to criticize belongs exclusively to one person. The more the boss criticizes, the more securely his/her power becomes established, the less power the other person has and, thus, the less capacity for resisting. With each critical label, the boss gains in authority.

- When the other partner asks for something, the boss says, "We'll see." Or "Maybe. I'll let you know." Instead of giving a clear answer, the boss displays his/her authority by making the other person wait.
To the boss, asking itself is a sign of subservience. The boss never asks for anything. S/he either states what "we are going to do," ("We're going to the Grand Canyon this year.") Or, if open discussion and mutual agreement seem unavoidable, the boss — rather than risk the loss of authority — acts alone. ("I'm going on vacation by myself.")

-"It's your fault, not mine. You're the one to blame." The boss never assumes responsibility nor apologizes. To apologize would mean acknowledging imperfection, thus inviting the possibility that s/he would sometime be criticized. The boss is careful always to maintain the superior position. (Don't ever let yourself be criticized is the rule.) The boss says, "You're sick." And "You're the one with the problem."

-"You better be careful." Or "I wouldn't do that, if I were you." Here it's not so much the words themselves that communicate authority as the awareness, in the person being spoken to, of what will happen if the boss' warnings are not heeded. In this instance, the boss rules by intimidation. "If you don't do as I say, I will (yell loudly and frighten you, hit you, not speak to you for days, cry until you're really sorry, etc.)

-"You have unresolved issues with your father." Or "You're a classic hysteric." Or "You're incapable of expressing feelings." The boss partner never asks the other person for information about her/himself. The boss always tells, and not with an "I think" or "in my opinion" either, but — without even a nod toward modesty — as an infallible expert on the hapless partner's strengths, weaknesses, character, psychological condition and even basic worth.

Be reassured — almost all of us speak boss talk at least occasionally. The issue is not primarily the use of language (Improving verbal etiquette is not what's needed.) Rather the issue is language used to reinforce the unilateral exercise of power.

Occasional boss talk is fine — as long as both partners have access to it. The language of authority becomes problematical only when language is used to express and maintain the superior position, in an essentially authoritarian relationship.

For example, making daily lists of chores for the other person to perform is fine when both partners do so. However, when one person alone assigns the tasks and the other person completes them, then — in that relationship — making chore lists is boss behavior. Similarly, when there's a boss in the house, "No" is boss talk. It means "This is the final word!" But, in a democratic relationship, "No" is just "my opinion," because it anticipates a "Yes!" of equal strength right back.

Who talks boss talk in your relationship, and what does its use say about the rules you two have worked out for sharing power and authority?


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