I had never heard of the term microaggressions until the recent uprising over the George Floyd killing by a Minneapolis police officer.  To be clear, that was not a microaggression. That was a racist act of killing for pure pleasure by the hand of someone whose job it was to protect and serve the public—an officer of the law whose empathy and emotions were unchecked and fully unleashed while two fellow officers of the law stood by in silence allowing the killer to finish up his deadly deed.  No, microaggressions are much more subtle and insidious and don’t involve death—at least not directly—as if that makes one feel any less hurt or less vulnerable. So, let’s begin here with a definition of microaggression.

According to Wikipedia, “Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.  The term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans.”  Lynching and beating would fall under the more extreme form of aggression and are sometimes referred to as macroaggressions.

Microaggressions on the other hand are those kinds of aggressions that stigmatized individuals experience on a regular basis and are easily and often inflicted on them by the dominant culture of any given political, social, or economic entity.  In the United States, for example, the dominant culture is that of white, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent. There are more white people here than African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, or Native Americans, and there are more middle-class people than there are rich or poor people. However, according to research and analysis published in 2018 by William H. Frey, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, new statistics project that the nation will become “minority white” in 2045. During that year, whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the population in contrast to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations.

Derald Wing Sue, Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University further refines microaggressions as 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. Marginalization is the process of making a group or class of people feel less important or relegated to a secondary position. She adds that microaggressions cay be based on socioeconomic status, disability, gender, gender expression or identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion and provides several examples of how this plays out in a classroom environment and exhibited by both students and teachers.  Reading over those examples, I was struck by how these examples might parallel and apply to the business environment in general and particularly when interacting with customers. I’ve selected a few here for thought and consideration.

  • Failing to learn to pronounce or continuing to mispronounce a customer’s name after they have corrected you
  • Scheduling client meetings or project reviews on religious or cultural holidays
  • Assigning a co-worker or subordinate a task or role that reinforces a gender role or doesn’t allow for flexibility across roles and responses
  • Using sexist or racist language
  • Assuming the gender of any customer or colleague
  • Complimenting non-white customers or colleagues on their use of “good English”
  • Making assumptions about customer and or colleague’s background
  • Using inappropriate humor that degrades people from different groups
  • Expecting people of any group to ‘represent’ the perspectives of others of their race, gender, etc.
  • Denying the experiences of others by questioning the credibility and validity of their stories

It’s equally important to note that when people engage in microaggression, they will not necessarily know or believe what they said was a microaggression or that their words have cast ill feelings upon the recipient. As human beings, we are all imperfect and we do make mistakes and are prone to committing a microaggression at times.  That doesn’t indicate that you’re a bad person.  It just means that you need to face the mirror a bit more often and examine your own implicit biases and actions and consider how that might impact others—clients and or colleagues. From there, you need to take that awareness forward toward a commitment to better communicate in order to create less anxiety in others as well as yourself when you catch yourself saying the wrong thing.

In an article written by Simba Runyowa in The Atlantic in September 2015 titled Microaggressions Matter, he shared the following microaggression that he experienced when studying at Oberlin College whereby a fellow student compared him to her dog.

“Because my name is Simba, a name Americans associate with animals, she unhelpfully shared that her dog’s name was also Simba. She froze with embarrassment, realizing that her remark could be perceived as debasing and culturally insensitive. It’s a good example of what social-justice activists’ term microaggressions—behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but which nevertheless can inflict insult or injury. I wasn’t particularly offended by the dog comparison. I found it amusing at best and tone-deaf at worst.”

“But other slights cut deeper. As an immigrant, my peers relentlessly inquired, “How come your English is so good?”—as if eloquence were beyond the intellectual reach of people who look like me. An African American friend once asked an academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to “look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.”

“I, too, have sometimes made what turned out to be deeply offensive remarks unintentionally. So, I am in no rush to conclude that any of these people harbor ill intent. In fact, they’re probably well-meaning and good-hearted people.”

If you begin to look for microaggressions around you, likely you will begin to build a keen awareness of them, not only coming from others but also from yourself just as Simba mentioned in his article.  It’s like looking for green cars—you never really noticed how many of them there are until you begin to focus on them and then suddenly, you’ll notice them everywhere.

Let me share one repetitive and particularly painful microaggression levied upon me personally within my immediate family.  There’s a tendency among some of my family members to perceive me and my wife as successful in material terms and flourishing financially. Nothing could be further from the truth.  My family’s dynamic is that they rarely ask questions about our life, our work, or our well-being but prefer instead to make assumptions.  In past conversations, I might have said something like, “Oh we’re flying to Los Angeles next week to visit the grandchildren…” and the response would be, “Oh, that must be nice” said in a dismissive tone and a hint of sarcasm along with a general attitude of indifference.  There never was any acknowledgment that we rightfully earned this time off to do something pleasurable or for ourselves or wish us well on our trip.  We’d never hear any degree happiness expressed for our upcoming voyage or success at anything.

This has happened enough times over the years that we have become reluctant to let certain members of our family know what we might be doing or where we might be going for whatever reason—pleasurable or otherwise.  Other examples: I was just promoted to manager—oh, that must be nice. We just replaced our old car with a new used car—oh, that must be nice.  We just picked up two fresh lobsters for dinner—Oh, that must be nice.  You get the picture.

It’s sad to not be able to share personal life experiences and pleasures and excitement with certain family members.  Just as Simba Runyowa stated within his Atlantic article, I’m not suggesting that this is coming from a family member harboring any ill intent. They’re well-meaning and good-hearted, but woefully unaware of how their choice of words and expression are fostering microaggressions shaped by perceptions and false assumptions and how that can possibly be hurting those close to them.

As CX professionals especially, and basically empathetic humans, we could all benefit from looking in the mirror periodically and checking our own blinds spots and implicit biases and assumptions.  By gaining awareness, we can adapt our behavior and avoid the false perceptions in our minds so that we can become kinder and fairer to those around us. While we may not be able to eliminate the perceptions and judgments, we make of those around us, we can certainly take the time to reflect upon them and examine how we might behave differently going forward.

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Karl Sharicz – Founder, CEO – HorizonCX, LLC. | July 2020

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