Retrospective on the Workplace Bullying Conference, Montreal, 2008


Workplace Mobbing in Academe


K. Westhues Homepage



Hannah Masterman, University of Waterloo

The chance to attend the 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying was exciting to me. The conference was not the only draw. Fact is, I had never been to Montreal. Here was a chance to practice my French!

Just one problem: I can't speak French.

The train from Toronto to Montreal was packed full and the trip took five hours. I sat beside a well-dressed man in his twenties who was busy fiddling with his laptop. He looked at me as I sat down. “Bonjour,” he said.

“Bone…ju…er,” I replied, making my best effort.

My effort was not good enough. “Oh, you are English only,” he said, promptly turning back to his computer. The rest of the trip passed with him and me, sitting side by side, sharing not one more single word with one another.

This was to be my first lesson in how isolating language can be. During the next few days, there would be many more.

At the opening session of the conference, the president Angelo Soares and administrators of the university gave introductory speeches. I can’t tell you what they said. It was all in French. Others around me cheerfully took notes, while I stared blankly into space, scared out of my mind that I was missing vastly important ideas. It was horrible.

My third (and fourth, and fifth…) lessons came in the content of the presentations themselves. Language plays a key role in workplace conflicts. Targets of workplace abuse vary by almost any factor you can think of, yet one thing that unites them is language, the root cause of their distress. In one way or another, there is a problem with their communications at work, and they suffer immensely because of it.

In one of the livelier sessions I attended, Catherine Davies presented he paper she co-wrote with Duncan Lewis and Michael Sheehan entitled, “Responding to Organizational ‘Noise’ about Bullying: Opening Pandora’s Box.” She emphasized a surprising finding (surprising in the sense that the researchers had not expected it; it just came out on its own): people experiencing workplace distress often bring up language and identity as factors which isolate them from their co-workers. A sort of us-vs-them situation is created by not being able to speak the correct political jargon.

I wasn’t the only one who picked up on this finding. During the question period, everyone had a comment on it. Duncan Lewis's was the highlight. He told of a group of male UK civil servants who, simply to exclude a few lower-ranking females, had actually spoke Latin to one another. There was a pause. I don’t think anyone actually grasped his point. He repeated: “This is the UK. In 2008. Latin.” Finally, we got it. There was a buzz as all turned to their neighbours exclaiming over this. “Latin?” I heard a woman behind me say, “Just to exclude someone? That’s awful.”

She was right: that was awful. But Latin is at least a language. There are more extreme ways to isolate someone at work. In his keynote presentation “Ostracism vs. Bullying: A Question of Being Worthy of Attention,” Kipling Williams discussed the distress people experience when they’re completely ignored by their co-workers. He argued that this is actually worse than being bullied, because it makes the target feel unworthy of any attention at all, good or bad. Indeed, he said, targets of ostracism often report that they would “rather have been beaten." This captures the incredible effect of language: depriving someone of it completely is worse than inflicting physical pain.

Many other presentations touched on the same theme. Researchers of workplace conflict are keenly aware of the importance of language. They themselves are affected by it. In the academic community, many different terms refer to conflict in the work environment. Chief amongst them are “workplace bullying” and “workplace mobbing.” But there is profound variation in how these terms are used. Many believe they are distinct phenomena, and that confusing the terms confuses the issue. On the other hand, many more feel that these two are more or less interchangeable, and which you use is matter of personal taste. I distinctly remember that Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, in her keynote presentation on “Workplace Bullying in the United States: Prevalence, Resistance, and Emotions,” calling mobbing sexy. (Talk about using language effectively! If she didn’t have everyone’s attention before, she captured it with that one word.) The result of all this confusion is a complicated mix of definitions which may or may not describe the same phenomenon. This was interesting to see: it reminded me that it’s not just so-called victims who struggle with language. We all do.

Language is an integral part of who we are. Unable to speak French in Montreal, unable to escape being “English only,” I felt incredibly limited. Doubtless, many targets of workplace conflicts feel similarly confined by their own communication problems.

Still, if there’s one other lesson this conference taught me, it’s that the barriers language puts up are by no means impenetrable. After Angelo Soares’ welcoming address, we realized that we were all meant to have grabbed headsets that would provide us with translations of all presentations – French to English and vice versa. I was immensely relieved to hear that, and I was struck by how easy it was. Not one day ago, I was barely able to say, "Bonjour." Now, with my magic translating headset firmly in place, I sat alongside scholars from across the globe, sharing ideas back and forth as though nothing could be easier. And I realized something: language is an integral part of who we are, but it’s not an impossible barrier. Maybe they are not all as simple as a translating headset, but there are always ways around its walls.