Our individual sense of self determines how we see ourselves, how others perceive us and how socio-cultural-economic-political institutions and structures define us.

The majority of us have aspects of ourselves which change and are fluid and intersect*. For example, our view of ourselves change with age, with grief, with bullying and discrimination, with a change to our external rights (e.g. change of status from citizen to refugee) or if we fall sick. Our sense of national identity may change if we relocate from our country of birth. A person’s position as a parent, would intersect with other aspects to themselves such as age, sexuality, being a sibling, having a disability, etc. Therefore, it is worth considering  the cumulative and diverse nature of who we are – reducing someone to a stereotype is especially unhelpful if you are genuinely trying to connect with another person.

* Intersectionality is defined as  a concept to signify the complex, irreducible, diverse and variable effects that follow when multiple ‘axes of differentiation’ – such as the economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential – intersect in historically specific contexts (Brah and Phoenix, 2004).

Why is considering the sense-of-self in communication important?

In general, our sense of self develops and changes as we interact with the socio-economic-political structures and culture, and those who share our space. This is why it is crucial to ensure that we take an equitable human rights-based approach when we interact with others. A flippant stereotype, for example, which may seem inconsequential to one person could cause hurt and pain with long-term consequences to another. The talk below by Helen Whitener demonstrates an example of the importance of identity in communicating with others.

Can you think of an example?

When you attack an aspect of a person’s characteristic (e.g. their age, race, disability, mental health, sexuality, gender) you are hurting their sense of self and dehumanising them. This can have a lasting impact on how they see themselves e.g. their confidence levels, self-esteem, what they think they can achieve, how they go on to treat other people, how they behave (discrimination can perpetuate a cycle of anti-social behaviour since much of it is learnt from peers, family, public figures, workplace colleagues, community leaders).

Choice and behaviour

It is a personal choice to either indirectly or overtly attack and erode a person’s integrity and sense of self. Most workplaces, schools and public/private organisations have specific measures/policies in place to ensure that people are aware of the minimum standards of behaviour expected from them when they interact with others. Many of these standards reflect current equality and human rights legislation.

Here are some examples of deliberate, conscious attacks on a person:

  • targeting one person in the workplace/school/university and bullying them about their clothes/background/accent/abilities
  • making jokes about or excluding someone because they have a limp
  • defacing synagogues
  • using sexist terminology
  • telling people of colour who have been subjected to historical oppression to get over it
  • disregarding the achievements of a person and considering age/looks instead
  • outing someone as gay in the workplace by incessantly questioning them about their personal life
  • masculinising the workplace and reducing the opportunity for others to contribute
  • speaking to an older person as if they have difficulty understanding
  • asking a transgender person to justify and classify their identity for you
  • demeaning and attacking the dignity of a person when they request help (e.g. someone with a disability) by making them ask for assistance repeatedly
  • undermining the dignity of a person by microaggressive behaviour, deliberately avoiding them or belittling their needs/feelings/views and seeing yours as more valid before discussion/debate