Hidden Conversation

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

What the shadow says.

For those who remember the satire of Mad Magazine, the December 1969 issue had a skit titled The Shadow Knows, with drawings of everyday situations and shadows showing what people really think and would like to do. We all know the shadow is there, but pretend it isn’t.

On a more serious note, Ralph Stacey and Chris Mowles suggested one may think about organizations as patterns of relationships that constrain what we can say, to whom, and how, and breaking those constraints comes with a social penalty. Based on that, they distinguish between legitimate themes to describe what happens in organizations in an acceptable way, and shadow themes, which, like the shadow in Jungian psychology, contain what cannot be said and comes out in informal or background conversation.

More generally, if one pays close attention, all conversations contain concealed shadow elements, which I call hidden conversation.

As the Sapir-Whorf theory suggests, the language or symbols we use restrict what we can say, for example one cannot translate the meaning of the German word schadenfreude into English. There are things you can say in one language that can’t be translated into others. Wittgenstein argued we belong to language communities in which there is a shared understanding of the meaning of words and language, which means it is difficult to understand what is being said without belonging to such a community. Although I’m a physician, following the different dialect of what colleagues say at a convention for a different specialty is not easy.

We want people to see us in a positive light to maintain group membership and relationships, and therefore constantly look for signals from others that they accept us. We hide what we think to protect our reputation and maintain the image people have of us, and we of ourselves. Hidden conversation protects our self-image, and helps project a positive one to avoid the risk of being shamed or embarrassed. We hide the shame in the West, as we do emotions of anger, fear, grief, etc.; we are ashamed of shame and emotions.

We manage what we want to disclose to others and how, and communicate this in socially acceptable ways to persuade others to see us in a certain way. Our reputations depend on how others judge us, and you can know people you haven’t met by their reputation preceding them. To have a reputation means belonging to a network of social connections and relationships, and hiding anything that may harm that from others.

Thinking in a complex, unpredictable world is useful for imagining novel situations before we act, which helps prevent mistakes. As Piaget and Vygotsky suggested, infants experience reality through their bodies, and only later add language to describe what they see and feel. Hence, we think both with our bodies and with words, and the culture we grow up in shapes how we think. We are aware others don’t know what we think, other than indirectly through body language, and know they are thinking as well, including about us. We often hide what we think and can’t say in conversation.

Some things can’t be said because it is against the law or regulations, and some because they are socially unacceptable, or taboo in a community. Saying those things risks being incarcerated fined, shamed, or socially excluded. In other words, we hide things collectively in conversation for social reasons.

A taboo topic or behavior is off limits, which creates a tension between openness and avoiding the taboo. Talking to others about what really happens within relationships is a major taboo because it risks reputational damage. There are also many social taboos, for example it’s not OK to wear a bathing suit to a funeral, and all societies have multiple taboos we learn from observing how others behave. We learn there are things we cannot say or do without the risk of being excluded or penalized.

For social reasons, there are words and phrases considered inappropriate. Words themselves are not inappropriate, it is what they signify, which is culturally determined, and the source of many intercultural misunderstandings. I was shocked when living in the Netherlands as a child to hear a very dirty word in the Dutch dialect I grew up with used there as the name for cat. Language is not foul in itself; it is the connotation and meaning we attach socially that makes it so. There is a reason dirty jokes are shadow themes expressed in background conversations, and why treating them as legitimate themes is a major faux pas.

As Eric Berne pointed out, many interactions are patterned and we follow them unconsciously as learned behavior. They contain social code for behaving appropriately, what to say, when, and how, and breaking the pattern can be taboo.

We also hide things deliberately or unconsciously out of self-interest, or to manipulate and deceive others.

Deception is widespread in the living world. Plants, animals, etc., use deception and camouflage for protection and to attract prey. We use deception in the human world to get others to do or not do something they normally won’t.

Most societies have sanctions against lying, yet it is widespread, and we learn what is socially acceptable lying and what not from early on. Lying and deception depends on a lack of knowledge. Knowledge gives power and hiding what you know from those without it by lying destroys trust when it is discovered. Liars hide the truth; bullshitters don’t care about the truth.

Secrecy is pervasive in human society, and we learn about it from early on. It is a legal requirement for some professions, and sometimes the basis of alliances. Secrets depend on a context; hence anything can potentially become a secret, but once it is one, it controls what happens in conversation. There are social rules for disclosing secrets, and once shared with us, we pretend knowing it is not a violation or exposure of the secret, which it is.

Some organizations, like the CIA, exist because of secrets, and many others keep secrets from competitors, customers, and employees. Insiders decide what may be shared, with whom, and when. Organizational secrets shape behavior and interrelationships.

Privacy on the other hand means controlling access to personal information, which is normally only shared at an intimate level, or for creating a social appearance. Being discrete means the sense to know how to say things inoffensively to maintain relationships, as opposed to being indiscreet and tactless.

Finally, there are things we don’t say but is implied in our internalized assumptions, beliefs, and habits. In other words, in Mad Magazine’s terms, what the shadow says. We act on what we believe, which is based on assumptions we seldom challenge. Conversations are saturated with hidden beliefs and assumptions we take for granted, but which we may also hide to risk exclusion if they are brought into the open.

Formal organizational hierarchies dominate many societies, particularly mechanistic ones, with tacit and formal rules for interactions between peers, superiors, subordinates, clients, etc. Below that is a hidden world of social politics representing social hierarchies, power dimensions, privilege, patronage, domination, etc., and within them, conversation and emotions are controlled and regulated as part of shared assumptions, beliefs, norms, ideologies, role expectations, etc. Which, in turn, regulates self-image, disclosure, reputation management, etc., as part of the hierarchy, all of which remains hidden.

Voice in an organizational context means employees having a say in their work. It can influence outcomes, but can also be a mechanism of control. Managers decide who may attend meetings, are included in circles of knowledge, the agendas at meetings, etc., which results in what De Vries calls pseudo-voice and resistance by silence. To Arnstein there is a ladder of participation with meaningful voice only at the upper levels.

We silence voices through power differentials and hierarchies, gender and racial differences, social status, relationships, norms, rules, and regulations, taboos, cultures, etc. The issue becomes, who can you safely talk to, who can you trust, etc., and the ultimate way to silence someone’s voice is to ignore them.

When you ask yourself, “what are you really trying to say to me?”, “what is really going on here in the background?”, “what are you assuming here?”, “why did you phrase it that way?”, etc., you know there are hidden background elements in a conversation, and that goes for virtually all conversations. It means they emerge from relationships and interactions, are constantly in flux and changing, and no two are the same.

The language and symbols we use constrain what we can and cannot say, we hide what we think to protect reputation and maintain relationships, there are social constraints to what we can say, we can hide our intentions to manipulate and deceive, and there are things we don’t say because it is part of our assumptions, beliefs, and habits. In short, hidden background conversation is not about conversation, it is about managing relationships.

Next time you are in a meeting or interview, pay attention to what goes on and look for what the shadow says. Observe the body language, carefully listen to what people say and don’t say, and how they do that. What you’ll see is the visible agenda representing Stacey and Mowles’ legitimate conversation as a game of make believe, and underneath that, a subterranean hidden conversation containing shadow themes, which is the deadly serious world determining what really happens to the agenda. That is the real immensely complex social world we live in and ignore as if it doesn’t exist, except it does.