By Nisha Susan
A certain kind of blank expression. A certain kind of frozen smile. Multiplied across a room on the face of everyone except one.
Chances are you have seen it often enough at work. It’s the expression that everyone in the room has while the boss is talking. If it’s not your workplace or if you are new there you are more likely to have that moment: Doesn’t the boss see that no one in the room agrees? Can the boss not see everyone’s eyes darting around like mustard seeds in a kadai?
Chances are you have seen that blank expression of everyone in the vicinity of power long before you ever became an adult and got a job. Chances are that you have learnt that blank expression almost before you started going to school.
As a teenager, I was taken by a mentor to visit her mentor. He was one of those wonderfully erudite and chatty men who you could listen to like an all-day podcast. Any point that you started listening you were bound to hear something marvellous. In a room that was covered in bookshelves from ceiling to floor, he still stood out as your possible source of knowledge on Everything.
Unfortunately, what struck me most during that half-day baithak was the fact that he never introduced us — three potential new disciples — to his equally elderly wife who walked in and out of the room with trays of coffee and snacks. He never even made eye contact with her. My recollection is that my mentor and her friends who had known her for decades didn’t speak to her either. One time she walked in when her husband was going off on some tangent about a romance of his youth, I looked at her with some horror — and the prudishness of 19-year-olds — that she’d have to hear this bragging. No response on her face or on the faces of the half a dozen others in the room. And the man in the centre of it never noticed that moment of strain. Steeped as he was in art and literature and sociology, it didn’t seem to strike him that his behaviour towards her was just mean.
Before and after that moment, like everyone else who grew up in an average desi home, I have been struck over and over again by the spectacular bubble inside which paterfamilias seems to live. They hear or see nothing. Watch particularly when they boast about themselves or bitch about others — my wife, my son, my father-in-law, my servant. The collective or singular gnashing of teeth in their vicinity is completely inaudible to them.
As a 19-year-old, encounters such as the one with the erudite old man only confirmed some men-are-rats type theory. As I’ve grown older these encounters have decreased but not disappeared. Every couple of months I find myself in a family situation where the Man of the House (and once in a year, the Woman of the House) says something so spectacularly tone-deaf it’s as if Donald Trump’s bhoot has arrived with the coffee tray.
Donald Trump, of course, is currently my favourite exponent of this phenomena. For one thing there’s so much material, so many videos in which you can watch him bashing on regardless while some of the most powerful men and women in the world look frozen — like your young cousin who’s been staying in your father’s house rent-free and has to listen to your father’s opinion about studying commerce. For another thing, Trump’s set-up — aggro sons, supposedly airhead wife, suck-up daughter, silent son-in-law — would be what you’d get if a Sooraj Barjatya movie woke up with a really bad hangover. It’s so familiar in its air of jolliness with rot below the surface. It’s everybody’s family where daddy operates in that amazingly secure bubble. Can’t Trump, your father and mine see what’s going on?
According to science, no.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a Canadian neuroscientist, recently published this startling explanation of how power changes the brain. When he studied the brains of people who have power and those who don’t, he found that power actually breaks ‘mirroring’ — a neural process that is required for empathy. Over time, the powerful become unable to see things from someone else’s point of view, understand what someone else is feeling or guess what they are thinking. Normal things that human beings do in social interactions become difficult or rare. Mogambo khush hua. But catch Mogambo being khush because his right-hand man is in a good mood. Mogambo laughs but never at the jokes of his right-hand man even if the right-hand man has a side-gig in stand-up.
Other scientists who have studied the same behaviour from different angles explain that it’s necessary for Mogambo to mimic other people physically — to laugh when others do, to wince when others do — to feel what others do. Instead, we have a situation where Mogambo is focused on his single-minded khushi, a situation then made worse because subordinates terrified by the possibility of being chucked into that lurid pit of acid. UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner who has been studying this particular area for 20 years notes, “The fact that people tend to mimic the expressions and body language of their superiors can aggravate this problem: Subordinates provide few reliable cues to the powerful.”
Obviously this study produces a dozen new questions. Does it matter if Mogambo or your boss or that unbearable uncle has lost his power of empathy? Yes and no, apparently. Not giving a crap about other people’s feelings can make you steely in the way of business magnates in B-movies and life. But on the other hand being clueless that a person is dreaming of pushing you off the roof rather than say Haan-ji Sirjee once more might lead to your losing your power — what Keltner calls ‘the power paradox’.
For me, the big question was this. Once the ‘mirroring’ neural process is broken, is it gone for good or like your mother’s old mixie can it live to grind another day? According to Obhi’s later study, even when the powerful were told to make an effort they couldn’t really respond with empathy. It was bust for good.
On the other hand, Keltner believes that, “an emerging field of research suggests powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves.” Apparently Keltner is optimistic that if Mogambo sought out deep and meaningful feedback that might help in a bandage sort of way.
But everyone agrees that it’s best to not let the RWA president get to the stage where he needs MRI scans to locate his milk of human kindness. This also may be information we need to pass on to those friends of ours who think that ‘a few years of dictatorship will set India right’. Yes, we will have such nice highways (umm, maybe) but after a few years who will set Mogambo right? His jar and blade might both have stopped turning then.
When they say that in these difficult times we should speak truth to power, let’s start with speaking truth to Papa, Beta and RWA Uncle. Before their brains break. This could be our Independence Day present to them.