Let’s Talk About It | 4 Common Responses to Microaggressions

Have you ever encountered someone who is challenging to work with? So challenging, in fact, that is it common knowledge, or at the very least a shared perspective, that this individual is difficult to work with? However, when the challenges related to this person are discussed there is a greater emphasis on their identity instead of the actions associated with their work. Even when you are in agreement about the difficulty of working with that person, you find that the microaggressions occurring are more alarming than the challenge you’re experiencing.

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Microaggressions are defined as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group. According to LeanIn.org, approximately 64% of women face sexism and racism in the workplace.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, here are a few examples primarily related to gender:

  1. When someone is repeating a conversation they had and they change their voice to mock the person they are referencing
  2. When someone is suggesting that the only reason a person is successful is because they’ve slept their boss or someone of importance along the way
  3. When someone assumes that a person might prefer a task because of their gender
  4. When someone references how a person should dress, behave, or present themselves based on their gender
  5. When someone describes the same behavior as different based on a person’s gender

And the list can go on and on. Regardless, we just need to stop it already. Instead of getting into a disagreement about whether our society has become too politically correct, let’s just agree that anyone willing to disrespect another person is willing to disrespect you, whether you’re present or not. And, we’re grown, so disrespecting someone is just a waste of time when there are so many other things in life to be worried. And yes, the definition or measure of what is considered respectful varies from person to person.

With all that said, nearly every person still come across situations where they aren’t sure how to respond so after reflecting on my own experiences, the experiences of others, and reviewing articles about this issue, I’ve identified the four most common responses. My hope is that you reflect on your own experiences, learn from them, and determine if there are ways in which you can get in greater alignment with your most authentic self. As Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, do better.”

  • Play along
    • Not surprisingly, this is the most common response. Whether you’re too shocked to believe what you’ve heard, you don’t realize what’s happening at the moment, or you don’t feel as though you’re in the right space to address the issue, most people find themselves here.
  • Call the person out
    • People who choose to respond this way either feel as though they are in a safe enough space to provide this feedback or feel passionate enough about the need to respond that it outweighs the potential consequences. We’ve probably all experienced or witnessed moments where this went really well and provided a great learning moment, just as we’ve probably all experienced moments that didn’t go so well.
  • Remove yourself
    • There are a variety of situations where someone may choose to remove themselves, but one commonality is that the decision to remove yourself from a situation implies that you recognize the issue within that situation. The key is to figure out what, if any, action you may want to take based on this experience.
  • Ask for help
    • An option that is always available is to ask for help. Whether you contact your management directly, human resources, department, or some other office, it is important to remember that regardless of the culture within the organization, change can not occur unless people know there is a problem.

So let’s talk about it! Most of us have used all of these responses depending on the situation, so use the comment section to share how you decide how to respond to microagressions you see or experience. Also consider bringing this up with a group of trusted friend or colleagues. Everyone wins and gains something when we have these conversations.

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