Mark Andrews: Rolling your eyes is not an act of aggression, it's one of humanity
Many years ago, at a function to celebrate winning a prestigious newspaper award, my then editor told me I would make a good stand-up comedian.
"You have a face that can make people laugh before you've even spoken a word," he said. Let's just say he was not a man known for suffering fools gladly, but on this occasion I think he was genuinely trying to be friendly.
He wasn't the only one who noticed this. An ex-girlfriend once suggested my multiple facial expressions made me resemble the funnyman Jack Dee. She was also trying to pay me a compliment – I think.
For most of my adult life, I have had an expressive face. I probably started honing it during my short, and not-very-distinguished time as a double-glazing salesman.
"Remember to smile, people will hear it in your voice," was one of the things we were told. And in case we forgot, they stuck mirrors on our desks.
The thing is, in those days, it was seen as a good thing. Non-verbal communication was one of the things they called it, or 'interpersonal skills' was the term favoured by another management consultant. It wasn't just about facial expressions, it was about sizing people up, and using subtle psychology to bring them round to your way of thinking.
But, apparently now, it makes me a microaggressor.
It came as a bit of a surprise, that one. I always thought I was pretty useless with computers. But being a microaggressor is nothing to do with silicon chips or the worldwide web, it's about rolling your eyes or shaking your head.
The civil service has spent £160,000 on private consultants teaching pen-pushers about the dangers of 'perceived slights' and 'microbehaviours'.
"Microbehaviours are tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words and tone of voice which can influence how included (or not included) the people around us feel," the 'experts' explained. Looking at your phone while someone else was talking to you was cited as one example. By that yardstick, there cannot be a teenager on the planet who is not a microaggressor.
Another no-no is rolling your eyes. Or using a negative tone of voice. It does make you wonder where these have ever experienced a real workplace. Believe me, the boss who thought I was a comedian exhibited aggressions that were anything but micro.
Certainly, they can never have worked in journalism because they would understand that being able to give subtle messages through your facial expressions, your tone and your demeanour is crucial to doing the job.
The best interviewers spend years finely tuning these skills. The prolonged, deliberate silence for the politician who is hoping you will move on to the next question. The gentle, warm face of encouragement towards someone who is struggling to share a painful story. The icy glare for the bureaucrat who hides behind buzz words, jargon and acronyms. The sigh of frustration to the public relations officer who suggests you 'pop your question in an email'. The granite-facced grimace towards the chirpy property developer who tries to get you on board with his matey banter. Who, in turn, I suppose is using his own 'microbehaviour' to further his own cause.
And its not just in journalism. Used carefully, these techniques can also be very useful in diffusing tense situations. For example, would you send to calm a group of boisterous football fans: them Dixon-of-Dock-Green type copper, with a knowing smirk and a repertoire of witty put-downs, or the earnest guy who starts quoting what he has learned on a course? The ability to convey an air of unflappable authority is essential for so many jobs, particularly those which involve safety and security.
These skills have been finely honed over the centuries to make us the civilised, sophisticated people we are today.
Rolling your eyes at somebody who is being uncooperative, dropping your jaw at a stupid suggestion, and shaking your head to express disapproval or disagreement is not an act of aggression, micro or other.
It's just being human.