During a recent conversation, I was told (in a very constructive way) that the phrasing “not qualified to be something” seems to be a bit offensive. I used that phrase in a recount of my analysis regarding another conversation in which I rejected the notion that a particular person is capable of doing a particular thing. Just FYI, the people who gave me feedback were not on the receiving end of that rejection.

Anyway, it made me think. Linguistically it’s very much a slippery slope. On one hand, I can see how it may be perceived as threatening. On the other hand, the word seems just right for what I was trying to get to. I simply meant that a particular person didn’t have the necessary expertise and skillset to do certain things. It’s not meant to be disrespectful or offensive. I can of course spend more time to expand on what I mean, but at the end of the day I’d still choose that phrase as the overall summary.

But how may it be perceived as threatening? If anyone has read 12 rules for life by the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, then you may have already guessed the argument that I’m going to make.

Lobsters and humans have diverged, evolutionarily speaking, for millions of years, but surprisingly both nervous systems are regulated by serotonin. It serves as a point to demonstrate how deeply rooted this system is, and it by no means is a cultural or sociopolitical consequence. It’s deeply rooted in biology.

Here’s an article that sums up the relevant part nicely:

As a scientist with a biological/palaeontological bent, I think I ‘got’ the lobster thing immediately. The smart move that Peterson made was to identify a creature that demonstrated dominance hierarchy behaviour — and which branched off from us in an evolutionary sense (lobsters are arthropods), a long, long time back. By highlighting dominance hierarchy on such a deep branch of the evolutionary tree, Peterson is implying that stressing about one’s position in the social hierarchy goes back a long way.

Lobsters themselves go back 350 million years or so (and I’m delighted to see that the first-author on the paper Peterson cites for this, Bracken-Grissom et al, 2014, was in one of my classes at the University of Queensland back in 2000*. Way to go Heather!). We can imagine that trilobites, a hundred million or more years earlier, were involved with social status too.

The precise details of the dominance behaviour are likely irrelevant in that broader context. Jordan’s point is that one can infer that such behaviour — keeping a close eye on your position in a social hierarchy, was present in whatever common ancestor we humans have, with the lobsters, and from there on down to us. Dominance behaviour has been around for so many millions of years that it can be regarded as a sort of fundamental.

Science shows that your serotonin levels will increase, making you feel better, and people will start treating you as someone higher up the social ladder, and perhaps higher than them.

Your position in the social hierarchy is important in a biological way. As Peterson points out, research (Ziomkiewicz-Wichary, 2016) shows that we all have a part of of brains (in Peterson’s words) “deep within … at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings” … monitoring “exactly where you are positioned in society”.

There’s a system in you that “tracks” where you are in the social hierarchy by regulating serotonin. It does this by increasing or decreasing the level of serotonin as you traverse up or down the hierarchy. More serotonin is associated with confidence, and less serotonin is associated with anxiety and negative emotions.

But what exactly constitutes a “social hierarchy”? It’s something like an aggregation of every hierarchy that you and others participate in. Imagine someone’s applying for a very particular job, says Product Manager. She’s choosing to participate in a very specific hierarchy of where the participants are other applicants for the same job. This particular hierarchy may be short-lived, as it disappears as soon as that specific position is filled. However, you can also think of this hierarchy as nested within the larger hierarchy of Product Manager jobs, and so the consequences within one can propagate to the other. And even such a hierarchy is nested in yet another hierarchy of Product jobs. So on and so forth. If you aggregate and abstract across these hierarchies, you have the “social hierarchy” in which your position is informed by your serotonin level.

Now suppose a candidate is rejected because she’s not qualified for the position, what happens is that the system that tracks her social hierarchy interprets the rejection as a step down in the hierarchy and thus decreases her serotonin level. Sadness, anxiety and depression are all possible consequences of such an altered chemical state. When you’re rejected, you are threatened in the sense that your position in a particular hierarchy that you choose to participate in is threatened, and also in the sense that, potentially, your overall position in the social hierarchy is also threatened. So it’s not the phrase itself, it’s the rejection implied by the phrase, that leads to anxiety: the rejection of one’s place within the social hierarchy.

And It’s not just about applying for a job, but it also goes for a certain role or responsibility.

It is the case that there always exists a hierarchy in which you’re not where you’d like to be, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out when being asked. But a rejection with good reasons is better than just a mere rejection because the difference between “there’s something that makes you unqualified to do this” and “here are very specific reasons that make you unqualified to do this” is the difference between momentary and prolonged anxiety. Therefore, what we can do is to base the rejection on solid reasoning, as well as communicate these reasoning to the other person.

In conclusion, I think it’s fine to say that someone is not qualified to do something, as long as there are good reasons and the intent is not to denigrate that person.

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