University staff need emotion on tap

Do university staff need to have emotion on tap in order to thrive? Neelam Wright reflects on how the reserved British university feels to the rest of the world.

Neelam Wright is a senior teaching fellow and cross-disciplinary academic developer at the University of Southampton

In my work as a cultural theorist, I have helped to uncover why South Asian artistic forms of emotional and cultural expression prove unpalatable to the (comparatively more reserved) white British market.

My research has taught me that emotional expression is quite specific to a given society or culture – and that it is ethnically nuanced. Good levels of emotional literacy are therefore invaluable when we are trying to understand ethnic minority experiences.

One of the consistent strengths of the many institutional equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) network leads I have worked with has been their ability to use their emotions to empathise with others in order to advocate for them.

They use their ability to “turn on the emotion tap” in order to engage enough empathy to see the world through the eyes of others.

Dogmatic stoicism

It is unsurprising that in universities located in affluent suburban areas – particularly those with less diverse staff cohorts (pulled from the local white British middle class majority population) – there are established forms of extreme reservedness that solidly set the tone for workplace interactions.

To be clear – I am not talking about ordinary forms of British reservedness, which are widespread, positively charged and the source of a much loved and revered warmth and charm. I am instead referring to extreme forms of stoicism that dictate institutional modes of engagement in less-diverse, affluent white majority spaces. Stoicism can become the dogma of science and business-focused suburban universities; bullish and controlled emotionally suppressed interactions feel more enforced in toxic spaces.

As one senior leader once told me explicitly during an EDI project,

I find emotions unpleasant…emotions are for my wife

He resolutely felt that emotion was unnecessary for his day-to-day work operations and brazenly barred it from our conversations. He did not feel that emotions were required for him to successfully embed inclusion, to instigate organisational culture change, to empathise with discriminated individuals, or to steer on EDI issues.

Institutional cultures of reservedness

My long-term conversations with ethnic minority individuals sadly reveal that some forms of English reservedness can be obstructive to authentic cultural expression. Some Black or Brown people may find belonging challenging if they join a white majority middle-class suburban team. This is inflamed when minimalism and understated-ness is the enforced modus operandi.

The conversational status quo may be unforgivingly non-directive communication. Leaders may pressure for a heavily policed culture of politeness amongst staff. These environments can create the conditions for racial microaggressions and elicit a feeling of collective intolerance towards against-the-grain cultural tones of expression. This could be as simple as someone feeling unable to wear bolder colours or their traditional ethnic clothing to work. It could also be braided, stylised or naturally thick ethnic curly hair standing out amongst more common white European hair types. It could be louder voices, direct communication styles, assertive intonation – the punctuation of words through urban accents, or about having more expressive gestures and body language.

These are ethnically coded forms of difference which, when brought into highly conservative or very reserved spaces, can have a negative impact on an ethnic minority individual. This is not to generalise and speak for all people of colour, but to highlight the realities of a significant enough group who genuinely struggle to fit in due to (what feels to them) suffocating work environments of extreme reservedness.

Turning on the emotion tap

Excessive reservedness does not only impact on ethnically minoritised individuals. These attitudes can role model clear resistance towards people from fringe communities, low socio-economic status backgrounds, different sexualities, gendered expressions, physical appearances, neurodivergences and disabilities.

Predominantly white institutions say they want their underrepresented staff and students to be their authentic selves. But to achieve this, we must avoid culturally neutering individuals into reservedness. It is too taxing for them to suppress their emotional and/or cultural differences. Instead, traditionalist stoic individuals choosing to work in diversifying workspaces must be willing to flex on their attitudes; accommodating cultures and identities that are simply never going to be as reserved as their own. To do this, we need to move away from switching off the emotion tap entirely and instead develop our ability to regulate it. This will help differences to be embraced and alternative cultures to be allowed to breathe.

Of course, the tap must flow in both directions. Those who are excessively reserved need to learn to turn the tap on. Similarly, social justice and EDI activists working with more conservative colleagues may also need to adapt by turning down their taps. Sometimes the aspirational talk and provocations can cause emotional overwhelm and, ultimately, disengagement.

Outing reservedness

University personalities are shaped by a range of factors, but geographical location is a key influencer – whether by the seaside, an urban area, an affluent middle-class neighbourhood, a space bordering the city, or the rural suburbs. In each case, the location permeates into the attitudes and character of the institution. Some insist that they can even predict the levels of reservedness and resistance to difference from the specifics of locality. From my perspective, there are distinctions between what I experience as an “international” university, a “British” university, and an “English-conservative” university. It is not unreasonable to suggest that universities that foster cultures of internationalisation over Englishness might more readily allow multiculturalism and ethnic diversity to breathe.

Suburban providers tipping towards a pride for English reservedness and conservatism (often detectable by their local-leaning staff hiring practices and the personalities of their executive board) have a difficult decision to make. They can ask their HR development teams to redress the emotional literacies across their staff cohorts. For example, by making interactions between STEM and Arts staff part of everyday work practice so that silos can be broken, and cultural humility can be developed. Or alternatively, if they see reservedness as part of their unique offer, they must state that more explicitly. Indeed, there are students (including internationals) who would choose that provider because they are in pursuit of an authentically stoic stiff-upper lip English experience. But they should stop leading diverse staff and students on with overpromises that their cultural differences will also be fully embraced.

The sweet spot

Looking back on my own EDI-related conversations with more reserved colleagues, the most fruitful partnerships have occurred when we had both learnt to balance out the emotion and reservedness. I intentionally turned down my tap, while they simultaneously became a little more emotionally open in the conversations. It is in this sweet spot that we were best able to learn from one another, despite our tonal differences.

To prevent diversity and inclusion risks and retain ethnic minority talent, some HEIs will need to do more to encourage their staff to strive for that sweet spot. We can target and develop both those who are very emotionally reserved, as well as the overzealous liberal types and cultural outliers. If we are looking to inhabit inclusive and diverse spaces, we basically all need to get better at learning how and when to turn that tap.

One response to “University staff need emotion on tap

  1. Interesting stuff but complex and difficult. For example how is ‘excessive reservedness’ to be measured? Any bibliography for recommend in this area?

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