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This Is the Right Way to Respond to Microaggressions at Work

A manager in a performance review says to his female employee, “You might want to try to smile more in meetings.” Someone at work says to a co-worker “He’s Christian, but he’s so open-minded.” Someone asks a group of co-workers if they want to grab a beer after work, while ignoring another co-worker nearby. A job application form only has “male” and “female” as gender options.

These are all examples of microaggressions, everyday verbal and nonverbal slights or snubs which aren’t frequently intended to cause harm or hurt feelings, but often their impact does just that. They communicate negative or hostile messages that are based solely on the person’s perceived marginalized group membership. Even though the recipient is the one who may feel that the message is hostile, it’s all our obligations to make sure we avoid using language that could be seen as a microaggression.

Some of the examples above may seem obvious, but microaggressions can happen unintentionally. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge them if someone says they were offended by something you said. People from underrepresented and marginalized groups experience microaggressions on a daily basis and after a while, it understandably will wear on a person—it’s like “death by a thousand papercuts.” How to Respond to Feedback About a Microaggression You Said or Did If you find yourself in a situation in which someone has approached you with a concern, here are some ways to handle it:

  • Listen to the person’s concerns. Do your best to understand the impact you had on someone else and avoid saying you didn’t mean it or you were making a joke—this can come across as making light of someone else’s pain. By saying you didn’t mean it, you can come across as trying to invalidate the other person’s experience.

  • Verbally acknowledge that their feelings are valid and underscore that it wasn’t your intention, but you understand that it created a negative impact.

  • Apologize, but do your best to not make it about your needing forgiveness. You might not get it and that’s okay.

  • Try to let it go and move on. These things happen and it’s important to remember we’re human and we make mistakes. It’s easy to hyper-focus on it every time you see that person, but that won’t help anyone.

How to Respond to a Microaggression About You If you find yourself on the receiving end of a microaggression, taking a breath is the first step in figuring out your response. It’s really easy to get angry and lash out, especially if this is your one-thousandth paper cut. Then, decide if you want to talk with the person about what happened. It may be appropriate to do it in the moment, but it may not be. It’s important to recognize that power dynamics can be at play here, so if you do decide to confront someone, you want to be sure you feel safe enough to do so. If you decide to talk with the person:

  • Be clear that it isn’t about calling someone a racist or sexist, it’s about the act and/or words. Once you call someone a racist or sexist, the conversation stops. But if you focus on the action, it’s something that can be addressed.

  • Relay that this isn’t about shaming or blaming, but that you’ve come to this person because you wanted to express that you were hurt and perhaps that you value the relationship enough to have the conversation.

  • Ask how the person is feeling after you’ve share the impact of their actions

  • Wait and listen. Understand that you might not get the reaction you want. If the person is defensive, and wants to make it about “having a laugh,” you can try to have a deeper conversation, but again, it’s about your comfort level.

  • Accept the outcome and move on. However it plays out, you’ve done what you can to address the issue.

How to Respond if You’re a Witness to a Microaggression Much like someone on the receiving end of a microaggression, take a breath and decide if you want to talk with the person about what happened. If you do talk to them, acknowledge that you’re sharing your feelings, as the person who you think was offended may not have been offended at all. Then, you’ll want to follow the same steps as the above, but again, it’s really important to note that this is your experience, and it isn’t about fixing anyone. Microaggressions happen all the time, so it’s important to know how to address them. There are ways to mitigate them in positive and productive ways through healthy dialogue, humility, and empathy. We spend a lot of time at work, and how we treat one another in an office environment is important to how we feel both at work and when we’re off the clock. Source:


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