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Microaggressions, even if subtle, indirect, or unintentional can make a typical workday seem like a nightmare. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. These slight jabs at you can lead to mental anguish and decrease your confidence at work. So how do we respond to these sly remarks in a workplace environment? How do we even identify them?
What are microaggressions?
To respond to these remarks, we first have to know what they are. Have you ever been at work and someone says something to you that is offensive but the person does not even realize it? Those are microaggressions: Insensitive questions, or assumptions aimed at marginalized identity groups. In reality, anybody can fall victim to microaggressions no matter if it targets race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc.
A microaggression against a neurodivergent person might be “You have a mental disability? You seem normal to me.” Now at first glance that might seem like a compliment. But let’s dig a little deeper. Statements like this imply that a disabled person is less than others and that a disability is bad rather than a natural part of the human experience. This ableist comment can go undetected by the recipient because the person who said it probably meant no harm. That’s why they’re hard to deal with: they can be so subtle and indirect that it can be difficult to pinpoint and address them. You may not realize you were the victim of a microaggression until you wake up in a cold sweat three days later and remember the incident!
Why they can be so harmful?
If you’ve never been a victim of microaggressions (which I’m sure you have, you just didn’t notice it) you might think “Oh you have to take comments like that on the chin, it’s all part of the job.” Imagine you are a second-generation immigrant who got hired at a company, and on your first day you hear comments like “Are you the new diversity hire?” “Wow you speak English so well!” and the age-old classic “Where are you from? No, but where are you really from?” Now imagine hearing comments like that all the time. That would make you dread going to work, wouldn’t it?
When you experience microaggressions throughout your career, they can negatively affect your mental health, contributing to depression and prolonged stress. It can also take a toll on your physical health, such as high blood pressure and headaches, as well as your ability to perform your duties at work. Microaggressions not only hurt the recipient but can also affect the workplace in the long run as they might not be comfortable interacting with certain individuals. This can have a detrimental impact on how teams function as others can feel uncomfortable even if offensive comments are not directed at them.
As a person experiencing microaggressions, you might feel that you can’t confront the aggressor. It can be hard to deal with them since it is often unintentional and might seem too small to address. Remember this: IT IS NEVER TOO SMALL! Your comfort within the workplace matters as much as anyone else’s. Microaggressions, and other incidents of discrimination, can go unreported because the victim is afraid of causing conflict. While these reasons are valid, failure in addressing these problems helps to create a toxic workplace culture. There are steps you can take to confront people about a microaggression without causing excessive conflict.
How to confront a microaggressor:
1. Identify your relationship dynamic.
What's your relationship to the person who commented? Are they known to be hostile? Before you approach them you need to evaluate your relationship with the person. If you have a personal relationship you may be comfortable saying something to them. If you are not close with this person, you need to consider if they have a history of being combative. If the person you are talking to won’t be receptive to what you have to say, then confronting them might be futile.
2. Determine if it’s worth putting effort into a conversation.
Will this benefit you in the long run, or cause more anguish? Maybe the awkwardness, stress, and potential conflict from having this conversation are not worth it for you, and you rather move on or address a supervisor or HR. It is critical to determine what you hope to achieve by addressing the microaggression. Do you want an apology, an acknowledgment of the impact, or a commitment to change their behavior? Understanding your desired outcome can help you gauge the effectiveness of this conversation and whether it is worth the effort.
3. Know when to approach them.
Consider the environment you are in to know when it is safe to have a conversation. Using your social cues is vital. You do not want to approach someone with this sensitive topic if they are preoccupied or stressed. Addressing the aggressor right before a meeting is not ideal, but if they’re on their break, this may be a good time to have a chat
4. Consider your approach to avoid a defensive response.
Do not approach them like an angry mob (although that might get them to change their behavior), or they’ll immediately be on the defensive and be closed off to what you have to say. Maintain a calm and respectful tone and avoid accusatory statements. Focus on the behavior, not the person, because no one likes being accused of this. Refer to specific instances of microaggression because they’re probably unaware of the harmful things they have said to you.
5. Ask them what they mean by what they said and how it made you feel.
Use “I” statements to express your feelings like “I felt marginalized when you said this.” These types of statements generally lead to less conflict and allow for both parties to connect.
Allow them to respond. No one wants to be talked at. Listen actively without interrupting or dismissing them, because their response might provide insight into their intentions. Depending on the outcome you can reach a mutual understanding and come up with resolutions to prevent microaggressions in the future.
Unfortunately, some people are going to be receptive, while others will remain ignorant. It is up to you to take further measures, like bringing it up with a supervisor or consulting HR. If your place of work provides no solutions, reach for external support. This could be contacting an employment lawyer or filing a complaint with a relevant regulatory agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Make sure to have documentation making note of the time, date, place, and description of the incident as well as the names of bystanders.
But what if you’ve been called for a microaggression? Sirens would probably go off in your head asking questions to yourself like “When did this happen?”, “Am I a bully?”, “Do I need to change my identity?” Relax. It is not the end of the world. Being in this situation is not ideal, but you must to see it out and resolve the issue.
What to do if you realize you committed a microaggression:
1. Pause and Listen
If you are called out for saying something offensive, your immediate reaction might be to defend yourself. That’s natural, but instead, take a moment to reflect. If you are accused of a microaggression it does not mean you are a bad person. Take this moment as an opportunity for growth. Even if you disagree, don’t think about a rebuttal to their statement; instead, listen to them. You don’t want to belittle their experience.
2. Take Responsibility and Apologize
Acknowledge your wrongdoing and apologize sincerely. Express that you were unaware of how your words might have been offensive and commit to doing better. Put aside any feelings of self-pity in favor of constructively changing your behavior. Don’t expect to be in the victim’s good graces instantly, but know you made an important stride in helping to solve the problem.
3. Encourage Ongoing Communication
If they are receptive to it, ask for advice to prevent any incidents like this in the future towards them or anyone in the workplace. Do not take offense if they say no, but instead do your own research to avoid microaggressions and be a better co-worker.
Driving Positive Change
Whether you have experienced a microaggression, committed one, or witnessed microaggressions as a bystander, acknowledging and addressing such behavior is crucial in cultivating a more safe and productive work environment. We must be allies to our co-workers to create an inclusive and uplifting work culture. Engaging in conversations about microaggressions, discrimination, diversity, equity, and inclusion can be uncomfortable and challenging. However, through these discussions, personal and collective growth can occur, leading to a more harmonious workplace. Microaggressions can be a lot to deal with, but you’ve got the tools to help.
Have a super day!
I’m a comedy content writer at SuperPurposes, passionate about using humor to connect with readers. My words are my superpower, and I wield them to bring joy to all who encounter my work.