Microagressions: The Subtle Slights And Big Aches

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Almost a year ago, I took a workshop through the Human Resources Department at the local University on "Subtle Slights and Microaggressions," which I have not been able to shake. 

A microaggression is defined as "the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons." (PsychologyToday.com)

For example, I am someone who really really really hates it when someone calls me 'girl.' "What can I get you girls, today?" ummmmm. no. just no. Why do you feel the need to belittle me in that way with your ageism and gender assumptions?

(Exception: when someone in my age range that I know pretty well says "hey giiiiiiirl" or "slaygirlslay" - everything else though just makes me want to vomit)

Anyway, microaggressions are typically not the big insults like "you're fat." That is CLEARLY an insult and you are allowed to react with anger. Instead, these are the slight forms of aggression that the giver might not even be aware of, like "Wow, you look great today. You could seriously turn heads if you put in that much effort every day." It's subtle, most likely unintentional, but it still hurts.

Another one of my favorites (NOT) is "sweet little girl." Yes, my boss (now ex-boss) did say that to me in my last few days of working. No, she was not kidding. And, everything about that phrase grosses me out as an adult. "You're such a sweet little girl and I know you have great things coming your way." Definitely meant as a compliment, but not at all received as one.

Now, if it was my best friend, or my partner, then I would probably... speak out colorfully about my anger, and how those small words affected me.

But how do you handle microaggressions with people you barely know? Or someone in a position of authority? Or your grandparents? It gets really tricky when you are placed in that kind of position.

Let's go back to the comment my boss made to me. I'm sure she meant it as a great compliment, and she definitely did not mean to belittle me in that way, but it made me uncomfortable. Are you supposed to speak out against that kind of remark, or just take it with a smile?

As someone who hates conflict, I generally try to just nod through those moments, but what if it is a regular attitude with continued remarks? How are you supposed to acknowledge that you don't like that language, without seeming "entitled" or "overly sensitive"?

When I was in this class on Microagressions, I asked this exact question. I asked about how to word or handle the conversation with your boss. Although the instructor of the seminar is the expert, I didn't love her response. She advised me to sarcastically challenge my boss when she used demeaning language again. To shrug it off with a "Yeah, I just graduated from kindergarten yesterday." But this didn't feel... right or appropriate. So I didn't take her suggestion or advice. 

It just so happened that my boss was someone who continued these remarks about twice a week, would interrupt me in every staff meeting (although she never did it to anyone else), corrected me on things in front of people that I never actually did wrong, etc. It was very clear after a year, that she would never stop thinking of me in that "little girl" way. Even though she hired me over 70 other applicants, had memorized my resume, and had never had any real reason to critique me, she still couldn't respect me with her words.

These microagressions started to chip away at me every day. There was nothing I could do to change her mind. She was so set in her mindset and in her language, and everyone in my office noticed. Although I tried to never bring it up, complain, or gossip about her remarks, my co-workers would come to me after a staff meeting and ask, "Are you ok? She was so dismissive of you today!"

Microagressions are the little slights - they aren't the big insults or things that "warrant" a reaction. They are little and they are personal. "You're fat" is a universal insult, that elicits a negative response. But these microagressions are things that might be only insensitive to you. But that doesn't mean they aren't real. That doesn't mean you have to bury those reactions. 

I #adultingFAIL at this all of the time. I roll over because "it isn't a big deal." But these small moments add up to some pretty big aches.

The leader of my seminar used a really great analogy.

Start with a piece of paper, and rip a small piece for every microagression that you hear throughout a week. That could be ANYTHING. It could be your roommate saying, "You ALWAYS lose the remote," your mom saying "You're going out like that? Don't you want to fix your hair?" or the server asking, "What can I get you ladies?" One comment might just be a tiny rip in your paper. But by the end of the day or week, half of your paper might be gone. 

This doesn't mean you are "overly-sensitive." You have every right to feel this way.

However, it isn't necessarily everyone else's fault that you feel that way. It is your responsibility to take care of yourself and do what you need to do to fill in those daily rips and tears. But, you need to identify what rubs you the wrong way. What are some of your triggers?

By identifying our own triggers and tendencies, we can begin to properly care for ourselves and heal those subtle slights. Plus, it might just highlight and help us notice how our words affect those around us.  Do you know of your Significant Other's sore spots? How about your roommate's? 

I wasn't able to keep up with my boss' microaggressions. And luckily, I was able to stop and realize why I was so unhappy, and remove myself from the situation. But, maybe if I was bolder, or more agressive myself, I could have addressed the issues head on with my boss. But, then again, we all have to pick our own battles.

I wish I had a formula for how to speak to those strangers, people in authority, or friends of friends that you barely know. I honestly wish I could just wear a whiteboard that said, "Hey, I'm Harvey. I really like coffee, dogs, and honesty. I don't appreciate terms like 'girl', 'lady', or really anything that makes assumptions about me." 

Do you know your "sore spots"? Do you notice that your mood and behaviors change when those buttons are pushed? How have you worded or educated those around you when they use microagressions?