Small Things that Feel Big

In a previous post, I wrote about micro expressions – tiny flickers of emotion that tell the truth even when someone would prefer not to. This post is about another small thing that can make a big difference in your relationships.

If you haven’t heard the term microaggression before, it’s probably because most people don’t mention it when you hurt their feelings a little in business or social settings. It’s a term for something that’s very old: the little insensitive things we do that cause harm without noticing you did. The official definition of a microaggression is insensitive statements, questions, or assumptions that cause harm, even if you don’t mean to.

No doubt you’ve experienced it in some form or another. Perhaps someone consistently mispronounces your name. Or shortens it to a nickname you don’t use and don’t like. Or asks you where you were born because you have a traditional (insert ethnic or nationality here) name. “Ohio. Thanks for asking.”

Casual remarks that were once considered general and harmless aren’t always. (Maybe, come to think of it, they never were completely harmless.) Asking a man if he has a wife at home can make him have to choose whether to come out to you as gay in a job interview or business meeting (or decline to answer and feel awkward.) Expressing surprise when a woman shows knowledge of sports, cars, or other “manly” pursuits. Asking if a child who looks different from his parents is adopted. Making comments about someone’s height or weight or hair or skin tone, even if it’s meant as a compliment.

Phrases that you use unconsciously can be hurtful, but since the person being hurt is usually in a minority, they probably don’t feel bringing it up is worth the pain of making a scene. Here’s an example: male nurse. The implication is that nurses are female, so the male nurse is an exception. Even using the term “lady” after her profession feels demeaning. Which deserves more respect: a cafeteria worker or a lunch lady? Which is more respected: a house cleaner or a cleaning lady? A landscaper or a lawn guy?

Of course you don’t mean anything by it. But that doesn’t let you off the hook. We tend to judge ourselves by our intent, but people we interact with judge us by our actions. Having said that, there is a difference between a mistake and a microaggression. Mispronouncing someone’s name once is a mistake. After you’ve been corrected, you’re definitely committing microaggressions if you don’t change your behavior. You’re a hugger, your sister-in-law is not. She’s told you that. No matter your intention, if you hug her every time you see her, you’re in the wrong.

My husband deals with microaggressions almost every day. He’s a licensed massage therapist who works in a clinical setting. Yet at least half the people who meet him socially call him a masseuse and refer to him to others by that term. (For the record, “masseuse” is the French term for a female who performs massage, and the term came to mean something unsavory over the years. The male term in French is “masseur”.) So he’s being disrespected and misgendered at the same time, even after he’s corrected people and told them the term is massage therapist. He’s learned to grin and bear it.

So what do we do about these small things that add up? It’s important to point them out in the moment; if the person who’s being hurt doesn’t do it, you certainly can. “She prefers to be called Patricia.” “Actually, it’s pronounced GHEE, not Guy.”

Remind your friends or colleagues of the difference between intent and impact. It’s okay to start a conversation with “I know you didn’t mean it that way, but when you said (or did) X, I felt Y.” The best response is simple. “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry. Thanks for telling me.” Then fix it. Channel your inner Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” When we listen carefully and make small changes, big things can happen.

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