Micro-aggressions might seem small in isolation but over time they can have a real impact on your wellbeing. In fact, some research suggests that small acts of discrimination are at least as harmful as more-overt forms, and therefore at least as important to consider and address.
Of course, micro-aggressions shouldn’t be happening in the first place! The best solution is absolutely to increase awareness among colleagues to stop non-inclusive behaviours occurring.
However in the meantime, complete prevention is difficult so it may be helpful to think about how best to respond if you, or someone you know experiences a micro-aggression at work.
Choosing the response that feels best for you
Here are a few potential ways to react and some of the pros and cons of each.
Responding in the moment
Calling someone out for a microaggression as soon as it occurs can be an effective way of communicating the impact of their behaviour - particularly as it’s fresh in the minds of everyone involved.
The person being called out may be more likely to get defensive in the moment. This could mean a less productive conversation and more negative behaviours directed towards you.
The reaction to being called out will vary hugely depending on context and the character of the person involved. Some questions that might be helpful to think about: Do you know the person well? Is it a public setting? Does the person seem stressed or in a rush?
Responding after some time has passed may help you to formulate what you wish to communicate to the perpetrator and feel more in control of the situation. You may also choose a more suitable moment to call out the behaviour when the person responsible is more receptive to your feedback.
Microaggressions can be so day-to-day for certain perpetrators that they won’t recall small behaviours when time has passed. Waiting to respond may therefore make it difficult for you to communicate why their behaviour was so problematic and the impact it had on you. There is also a risk that you are subjected to gaslighting i.e. accused of overthinking incidents or criticised of holding onto resentment. Whilst these accusations are totally unacceptable, it may expose you to additional distress.
Not taking any action
Sometimes it feels like you can’t say anything at all, and this is a totally normal feeling. It can be intimidating and uncomfortable to call out colleagues, friends or your superiors.
If you do decide not to call out a behaviour, it can still have an emotionally draining effect, and for longer. If you can, try to deal with the incident in a way that helps you to process and move on from the situation - whether that’s talking to a friend, seeking support from HR or reporting via an anonymous platform like InChorus.
Remember, if you experience a micro-aggression, you have every right to feel offended, and you are entitled to feel safe from discrimination in your place of work.
I want to respond to a micro-aggression- how shall I do this?
There is no standard response when it comes to calling out micro-aggressions but there are a few things that might be worth considering:
- Challenging meaning:
Ask the person responsible “What do you mean by that?”, or another probing question. This not only gives you an opportunity to understand the perpetrators actions and intent, but also time for the perpetrator to self assess and hopefully realise the impact of their behaviour.
- Disarming the perpetrator:
Conversations about micro-aggressions can make the person responsible defensive. You could try to disarm them by acknowledging that the conversation is uncomfortable and inviting them to discuss the behaviour together, even if they feel awkward.
- “but I didn’t mean it like that...”:
Be prepared for this response! Explain how you interpreted their behaviour and why. Whilst they may attempt to clarify their intent, feel empowered to clarify their impact on you.
- Protect your wellbeing:
Try to control what the incident takes from you. If engaging in prolonged discussions brings you down, you always have the right to walk away from a discussion. You could even direct those responsible to resources such as those articles available on the InChorus platform.
If you experience or witness a micro-aggression at work, always choose the response that feels best for you. If you're worried about speaking up, consider using an anonymous channel if these are available. Speak up tools like the InChorus platform can be a great way to voice your experience without worrying about any repercussions.
Always consult your HR or People leads if in any doubt.This guidance draws upon the framework set out by Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch and Laura Morgan Roberts in their Harvard Business Review Essay.