Calling In vs. Calling Out
Have you ever been called out? Something you said or did was offensive, inappropriate, or insensitive, and someone else labeled that behavior in a public way?
It’s an awful feeling—embarrassment about causing harm at the same time as defensiveness about being criticized in front of peers. It can be hard to focus on understanding our mistakes with so many judging eyes on us, no matter how much we want to avoid making the same mistake in the future.
But calling out happens a lot. A decade or so ago, a young activist named Ngọc Loan Trần observed the phenomenon in social justice spaces, and diagnosed its downsides. They introduced an alternative approach: “calling in.” And Professor Loretta Ross expands on the idea in her book Calling In the Calling Out Culture. (I first heard it from a client Carlen Arima at the New England Aquarium—thanks, Carlen!)
When I first heard that phrase, it resonated with me immediately - I love it. It evokes closeness rather than separation, strengthening relationship rather than division. It helped me see why, for me, shaming people is not an effective approach to diversity and inclusion challenges. I don’t like to do it to others, and I definitely don’t like it when they do it to me.
Both “calling in” and “calling out” arise in a situation where harm is committed in the presence of others. We have all been there. But often we are not satisfied with the actions we took in the moment. In our workshops, we look at case studies to analyze the different roles people play in these scenarios: you may be the speaker who caused harm; you may be the recipient of the harm; or you may be a bystander.
A common impulse in these moments is to identify someone else as the cause of the tension. The offending speaker might say to the offended person, “You’re being too sensitive.” A bystander might point a finger and say, “You’re being racist.”
We encourage people to think about the role they’re playing when a conversation goes sideways, instead of pointing fingers to call out others. After all, your role is the only one you have control over in that moment.
If you have been severely impacted by offensive behavior, calling someone out may be a necessary step. But if there is a context of trust, calling in can be a powerful tool to strengthen a group’s culture. Rather than shining a light on their flaws, you can share how you feel about the impact of their words, and invite them into a conversation about how to do better next time. When we tell somebody what they’ve said has an impact they didn’t intend, we’re doing them a favor.
Last summer, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being invited me to facilitate a virtual workshop. There were over 300 participants in the Zoom session. It went very well and we ended the formal part of the program with enough time for questions. Someone asked if the interrupting bias tools I had shared could be used with family members. I said, “Absolutely! We all have a crazy uncle who we know will say something inappropriate during Thanksgiving dinner. That is an excellent opportunity for interrupting bias.” I said it in a lighthearted way and several people laughed with me.
When it was over, I stayed on Zoom with the two organizers, Heidi Alexander and Gavin Alexander. Heidi said that a participant sent them a message in the chat, asking them to tell me that I shouldn’t use the term “crazy uncle” because it could cause harm.
I felt defensiveness rising in me. I didn’t remember saying it. I even think I responded, “That doesn’t sound like something I would say.” But when Gavin reminded me of the context in which I said it, it all came back to me.
I felt ashamed, but also grateful at the same time. And as time has passed, my appreciation for the kindness that that participant showed me has increased exponentially. They could have called me out during the program, in front of hundreds of people, shaming me publicly. Instead they chose to call me in. They got the feedback to me and I absorbed it.
Twice in the next month, I caught myself about to say the same phrase. Thankfully I stopped myself in time. Now I only say it when I’m using it as an example of what not to say. Their call in had the desired effect.
Calling someone in makes it possible for the person who has caused harm to focus on the part they play. Rather than grappling with their learning and trying to save face at the same time, they can have the gift of receiving feedback with compassion.
Over time, giving and receiving grace in this way forms a culture of honesty and respect within groups. Ultimately, that’s a more sustainable route to inclusion than pointing fingers.