View from the other side of the desk

David Lapakko, Dept. of Communication Studies, Film, and New Media

Don’t get me wrong — consciousness-raising is generally beneficial. One recent effort in this regard involves “microaggressions.” Although I’m on board with most of the microaggression literature, I wish it could be renamed. To me, “aggression” both denotes and connotes some kind of hostility. I’d prefer “micro-insensitivities,” a more apt label, but it doesn’t neatly roll off the tongue.

Often the micro-aggression literature comes with tidy little lists of things people might say that automatically qualify as “aggressive.” The only problem, at least from a communication studies perspective, is that every utterance is made in a context. It involves the words themselves, the tone of one’s voice, the nature and history of the relationship, the exact context in which the comment is made, the intention behind the utterance and a host of other factors. So if I ask someone whose first language is not English what a particular word or concept might be in that person’s first language, I might be more curious than aggressive. It might even show that I care enough about this person to find out, but according to some of those tidy lists, such a question automatically equates to hostility — it’s a microaggression.

Then there is the notion that if you repeatedly have difficulty pronouncing someone’s name, that’s a form of aggression as well. Sometimes it could be. But sometimes it is no more than a “mental processing” issue, one that I experience all too well when I have 95 student names to learn, which is the case this term.

As a young lad, I played with a boy down the block with the last name of Schoephoefister. I eventually learned how to spell his 14-letter surname and to pronounce it as well. But my struggles in that regard didn’t change the fact that I liked him. (With a surname like Lapakko, I’ve never felt that someone who can’t spell or pronounce it is being “aggressive.”) 

Please give all this some thought whenever you’re tempted to rush to judgment.  And oh, by the way, his last name was pronounced “chef-OYSTER.”

This article was originally published in the Nov. 2, 2018 issue.