It starts with a seemingly innocuous comment. Followed by a quick backpedal — "I didn't mean it like that, you know."
You've heard the term "microaggressions" being tossed around a lot — as both a very real thing, and also, as a joke. So what is it? According to Columbia University psychology professor Dr. Derald Wing Sue, "Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership."
More and more research shows that casual sexism and microaggressions have as strong an effect on office culture and mental health as more overt forms of harassment. But because they're, well, micro, it's easy to dismiss them, and easy to accuse someone who acts offended as being "sensitive" (which is, in fact, another microaggression). It's a little like throwing a rock and accidentally hitting you in the head: Just because they didn't mean to do it doesn't mean you aren't bleeding. And that denial — the dismissal of your reaction — can be totally crazy-making.
For women in the workplace, particularly minority women in the workplace, addressing them can be tricky: On one hand, you're well within your rights to make the person who commits one aware that he just did; on the other, you do risk the eye roll, or worse, being seen as "difficult" (and the hits keep on coming). You may choose to ignore them, or you may see it as your duty to call them as you see them.
But what you need — what we all need — is to hear, over and over again, that microaggressions are real and they're not ok. And to that end, I've compiled a list of some of the most common microaggressions (you've heard many of them, possibly before lunch).
And so when one causes you to temporarily twitch, you are not crazy. It's real. And it's rude.
I've put them in ascending order from "not great" to "hair on fire."
These are...not great
"What are you ladies gossiping about?" It sounds playful and fun. But it's so not. Because what it implies is that if two or more women are gathered together, they're doing the devil's work, spreading false rumors, being catty. When really, you're discussing discrepancies in the P&L statement.
"What she's trying to say is…" This is also unaffectionately known as "mansplaining" — when a man attempts to translate for a woman. You don't need that. No one needs that.
"What if we try…(that thing you suggested last meeting)." I'm sure this has happened — a man 'comes up' with an idea you presented last week...that no one responded to. For your sake, for all of our sakes, speak up and remind everyone that you did suggest this previously. And if you see someone similarly taking credit for a female coworker's idea, step in and champion for her. We need to stick together on this.
"You're taking notes, right?" This is a 1950s throw back, when women were essentially a step above office appliances that dispensed typed copy and hot coffee. Actually, I take that back. Office appliances didn't suffer nearly as much abuse. Unless your job is to take notes and the person to whom you're listening is the person you provide admin support to, this is not ok.
"Could you grab me a coffee? Two splendas, please!" See office appliance discussion, above. You are not a coffee machine or a coffee deliverer.
When you're interrupted for the fifth time that meeting. Being interrupted, repeatedly, is one of the most obvious signs of micro-aggression. Pause, say that person's name, and remind him that you were speaking and that you'd like to complete your thought.
"Hi, I'm looking for the manager." Ok. Except you are the manager. This one needs no explanation.
Hair on fire
"When are you having kids?" This is a minefield of assumptions. It assumes you want kids, can have kids at all, or haven't experienced trauma around childbirth. And it's a thinly-veiled facade for the question, "So when will you be enjoying unprotected sex?" Yikes.
"You're pregnant? Was it planned?" This is a loaded question. You're damned if it wasn't, and damned if it was — depending on how parent-friendly your boss/company happens to be. It's also a passive aggressive indictment of pregnancy. The only acceptable follow up to "You're pregnant?" is "Congratulations!"
"You should smile more!" According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, high-testosterone men use less facial expressions in general — and it's far less likely for men to hear that they should smile more often. Telling a woman to smile might be intended as a sign of affection, but it reinforces the idea that women should always be pleasant, happy, receptive, and grateful.
"You're coming off a little shrill." You'd never describe a man as shrill or nagging. There is a centuries-long tradition of labeling assertiveness in women as shrill, nagging, or insubordinate. Try to think of the negative correlation for a man who speaks too assertively. Yea. I couldn't come up with any, either.
"Your apologetic tone/up speak makes you sound less authoritative." In an effort to not come off as shrill or bossy, you've course corrected too far into the land of "Sorry sorry sorry. Sorry about that." Or, you've adjusted your tone to up speak — that little lilt at the end of a statement that makes it sound like a question (think Valley Girl). Both young men and young women engage in trends like up speak and vocal fry, but women are much more likely to be policed for it.
"What, is it that time of the month?" Having your feelings invalidated as a hormonal surge is one of the most frustrating feelings on the planet. Add to that the sting of contorting a normal, regular female bodily function into a weapon for counterargument, and you've got a double whammy of a comment.
"You're being dramatic. You're overreacting." Look, if you punch a coworker, flip a table, or scream at someone in the middle of a meeting — yes, that is an overreaction. But too often, a woman expressing any reaction is grounds to sound the dramatic alarm bell. That's called gaslighting, and it's a manipulative way for someone else to steal your power.
"This meeting is a big deal — you might want to wear your hair down." Confession time: I had a boss who said this to me on a regular basis. He told me I looked older and more professional with my hair down. He genuinely did not understand the difference between requesting this and asking the men in the office to wear a tie. But there's a difference between dictating a dress code standard — with room for personal interpretation and tailoring — and dictating the fashion and beauty choices of one employee. It sends the message that you and your body are a prop for closing sales, not a human being.