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What is a microaggression?

Part 1 of 4

It’s Monday morning, and Brian has just shuffled into the office, ready for the first team meeting of the week. As he enters the meeting room he cheerily exclaims 'hello girls!' before going on and greeting his male co-workers individually, by name. The 'girls' in question continue to be surprised by how rude and belittling it feels, as it happens in most meetings. What they do know is that it would be impossible to explain to Brian the magnitude of their feelings – after all it's such a small thing.

This illustrates both what a microaggression is and what makes it quite so debilitating.

Microaggressions are pernicious little actions or word choices that at first sight would seem to have no malicious intent nor be of any particular consequence. They can be the subtlest of communications – the tone of a voice, a gesture, the double-meaning of a word. We’re constantly interpreting these tiniest of messages to let us know what people think of us, along with whether we fit in. And we tend to feel unable to speak up about them – either to the ‘perpetrator’, our manager, or even our peers.

Microaggressions have been around for ever. But the term was coined by the Harvard psychiatrist Professor Chester Pierce. It was his insights, on these subtle forms of racism, which have now led to in-depth research on their impact.

And microaggressions are being talked about more and more – both in media and business. Their relevance in today’s world has grown as overt cases of discrimination become less frequent. Looking at the expansion of research in this area, it’s impossible to see an organisation in the future where microaggressions aren’t talked about.

But do you think you'd be able to spot one? Some are more noticeable than others.

“Aren't you supposed to be good at maths?”

“You do your job so well despite being part time…”

“At least you tried.”

“Most of you have probably used this technology at University…”

At this point it's important to stop and understand that microaggressions are not specifically relevant to race, gender or any other categories. They can take shape because of any difference. But we do tend to see specific microaggressions for particular differences, even quite unique ones – such as the way people from Paris might speak to people from the rest of France. Or business leaders have been known speak to HR professionals.

But regardless of the way in which we differ, microaggressions hurt. In the moment they are received, they strike at the heart of our identity, causing an instant sense of exclusion. Over time, we become more sensitive to particular ones and their impact on our health and performance begins to mount.

Want to know more about the impact of these mental paper cuts? The next in this series of articles will discuss compelling research that shows the psychological effect they have on people.


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