|Cold shoulder, silent treatment do more harm than good
Ostracism is more powerful now than ever because people have fewer strong family and friend support systems to fall back on when faced with exclusion in relationships, the workplace or even Internet chat rooms, says a Purdue University social psychologist. “The effects of ostracism are a health concern,” says Kipling Williams, professor of psychological sciences who researches ostracism. “Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done. Some purposely hurt others by not inviting them to a party or ignoring them at work, and others may not even realize they are ostracizing someone when they ignore a new temporary employee or a friend after a disagreement.
“In the past, people who were ostracized at work or by a friend could seek support and control through another significant relationship. But because people report growing more distant from extended family and relying on fewer close friendships, they might lack the support to deal with ostracism.”
“Ostracism is one of the most widely used forms of social punishment, and some see it as more humane than corporal punishment, as when used in a time-out, but there is a deeper psychological impact that needs to be taken seriously,” he says. “We know that when people are ostracized, it can affect their perceptions, physiological conditions, attitude and behavior – all of which sometimes can lead to aggression.”
Ostracism, like the silent treatment and cold shoulder, are very common for two reasons, Williams says.
“First, they’re powerful,” Williams says. “And second, you can get away with them. If people are physically or verbally abusive, they can be punished. But it’s hard to punish someone for not making eye contact or ignoring another person. If the person is confronted by asking, ‘Why are you not talking to me?,’ the person can easily deny the accusation.”
Sometimes ostracism is unintentional. Temporary employees, for example, report that they are frequently ostracized.
“They feel invisible,” Williams says. “Other workers don’t want to make friends or even introduce themselves because that person is not expected to remain with the company for long. Temporary workers feel ignored and excluded, and this can affect their performance in the office.”
“Ostracism is present in the animal kingdom and is often used to increase a group’s chance for survival by basically excluding the weakest link,” Williams says. “For example, if a lion is hurt and holding the pride up, then that lion may be pushed away.”
However, humans use ostracism for more complex reasons. The people who are ostracizing often feel a strong sense of belonging with each other, as well as feeling empowered, Williams says. People who are excluded react one of two ways. The most common reaction is to try to improve a person’s characteristics or behavior so they are included or fit in. Or, people who are excluded frequently become destructive and vindictive.
Many people also use ostracism as a tool to gain control of a situation.
The silent treatment also can be an asset when you are trying to argue with someone who is more articulate.