Do words alone matter that much?

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Over recent report that calling colleagues ‘sayang’ or ‘dear’ is considered verbal sexual harassment.

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I wish to offer my two cents after reading a recent report with the header “Lawyer: No to ‘sayang’ or ‘dear’ in line with cases in court”.

The report was based on comments by several people including a lawyer whose opinion was sought, Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor executive director, and the Congress of Union of Employees in the Public and Civil Services secretary-general.

While I concur that using words like ‘sayang’ or ‘dear’ in the written form could easily be used as proof of sexual harassment, I wish to point out that the same words could have different, and even opposite meanings, when uttered in different tones.

It is the tone of our voice that giveaway our true feelings, not the choice of words, as most of us are not lawyers and do not always use words accurately, especially in normal conversations. In truth, it is not what you say, it is how you say it.

Remember the phrase “Sayang sayang, sayang sayang sayang. Sayang sayang sayang?” When each ‘sayang’ is given a different tone, the same word strung together would mean “My dear, I love you so much. Do you love me as much?”

And in face-to-face communication, it is our body language that includes facial expressions, hand gestures, and body postures that are more important than the tones of our voice or choice of words.

A landmark study by the University of California, Los Angeles gave only 7% weightage to the verbal element in interpersonal communication, 38% to the vocal element, and a massive 55% to the visual element. Hence, the powers that be should not be overly fixated on the words used.

In Malaysia, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 2022 was recently passed and came into force on March 28 and defines sexual harassment as any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, in any form, whether verbal, non-verbal, visual, gestural, or physical, directed at a person which is reasonably offensive or humiliating or is a threat to his or her well-being.

The Public Services Commission followed up with a circular dated April 7 that office romance and affairs constitute sexual harassment, whether verbal, physical, or visual. Among the listed form of sexual harassment is referring to colleagues as ‘sayang’ or ‘dear’. And ‘sexting’ has been classified as visual sexual harassment.

The views expressed here are strictly those of YS Chan from Kuala Lumpur.