Macroremedies For Microaggressions In The Office
A friend and I were waiting in line for a basketball game at the Barclays Center. Then a teenager cut in front of us and glared back at me as if I had cut her off while muttering under her breath. Related but unrelated, I also received an interesting suggestion on what you find most annoying in the office from our recent poll: new managers that dislike you for no reason.
I got to thinking about both situations this week because in each someone is demanding positioning, rights, or ironically respect. All of which force the “target” into a seemingly catch-22: do I respond likewise in defense of my being or let it go for short-term peace but inadvertently affirm hostile behavior (no matter how subtle)?
It is one thing to recognize a problem for what it is, but another thing entirely to do something about it by risking personal and professional consequences.
Incidentally, I believe the reason most microaggressions are lodged based on gender and race is a function of the brain. When you first meet someone, the very first thing you process is gender. The very second piece of mental data is their race. Hence, the popular microaggression towards people of color, “So where are you from?”
The implication is we collect all this data in our brains from a lifetime of experiences (good and bad) that inform how we interact with people “like that.” This is a slippery slope into stereotypes, discrimination, and innocent misunderstandings – which are often heightened when met with an elevated sense of power.
On the other hand, consider how toddlers interact with each other without these mental barriers.
“Every action is either an expression of love or a cry for help.”
I witness this in yoga class all the time. Our physical bodies get so accustomed to moving a certain way every day for many many years until one day we do something different and the mind screams, “That doesn’t feel good! I can’t do that! That’s not right!”
So what do you do? To take the yoga metaphor further, it’s called practice. You breathe through it. Gently. And stop when it’s too much. All the while cultivating a beginner’s mind: an open mind steeped in a conviction that all things are possible, but that we are not responsible for all things.
In the case of the manager, could his or her negativity be an expression of insecurity about a new position, being sabotaged in the past, or believing they can do everything themselves? Or they could just be scared. The truth is, we’ll never know. But reframing their behavior in a wider context helps create some distance and, in perhaps a very real way, compassion.
This perspective sets up three basic remedies to respond to microaggressions.
A best practice among theater directors when actors go off in a different direction altogether is to say, “Tell me about your thinking about…” This allows the actor space to share his concerns, decisions, and experience. Most importantly, this is followed up by the director saying, “Can I make a suggestion?” To which the actor usually says yes, which works as permission for the director to course-correct.
In line at the Barclays Center, I imagine myself asking that young woman, “Was I in your way?” instead of prematurely silencing myself. Of course given her demeanor I would have not picked a fight, but there is something to be said about making yourself known as a human being.
And as for the manager, can you really ask anything without questioning their authority? Certainly tread carefully. Although when receiving assignments, there is typically a small breath of a window where you might be able to say, “Sounds great! Any chance I could get a sense of the context here?” This also serves as a window to understand the pressures your boss is under at the same time.
There seems to be so much anger bubbling in the world today. Sometimes it can come out of nowhere when you least expect it.
A sociologist shared with me these time-tested words: “What can I do to help?”
This small sentence shifts the interaction away from the emotion that can fuel aggressive behavior toward what an explicit want. And is displays your willingness. More importantly, the question compels an answer which drives a real action that comes full circle to ease the emotion.
Crack A Joke
A common trait among many executives I’ve seen is that they know how to pull a joke out and ease the tension in any room. Few do it better than the Queen of England:
However, a unique challenge with microaggressions is that they may be delivered out of complete ignorance. Again, compassion is key here. A joke can go the extra mile to shed light on the mishap. Here are some examples:
- My mom said I was from Mars.
- Thanks! Sounds like your English could use a little work though.
- Just because you say it louder doesn’t mean I hear you better.
After the laughter subsides is a good time to close, “I’ve heard that before. It always makes me me think about what it means.” Let them connect the dots and maybe engage you in an open conversation. If not, a shrug and a smile can put most awkward situations to rest.
The win here is be yourself: when you see something, say something. Then let it go – but not a moment before you’re ready.