Have You Unknowingly Committed a Microaggression?

The solution to many microaggressions is to think carefully before opening your mouth.

At dinner at a great restaurant, The Dutch, in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, I did something that could spark anger in some. I asked the waiter where the “ladies room” was, with a seemingly transwoman sitting immediately to the left of me.

The waiter responded kindly with something along the lines of, “We have a non-gender room—which happens to be available right now.”

I smiled, thanked him, and proceeded to my destination.

I felt I had made a faux pas, and that the people at the table next to me, if they heard, were judging me for it. They were making assumptions perhaps about my social and political beliefs. Maybe they thought it was an intentional slight or statement.

However, more than anything else, my choice of this term relates to my background as a southern sorority girl raised by a “princess” mother. The “ladies room” was my reflexive name for the bathroom. I have read that such missteps are sometimes considered “microaggressions.” I interpret that word to mean the small ways you intentionally or unintentionally tip your hand as to your biases and prejudices.

This happens in the workplace, too. I had a manager, now thankfully retired, who repeatedly committed microaggressions that indirectly expressed his true feelings about me. When were seeking “man on the street” interviews at a conference, he said I should be the one to stop passersby because people found him too intimidating. I finally said to him, “No one finds you intimidating.” Another time, he said, with astonishment, “Well, look at that, you taught me something.” “OK, I get it,” I wished I could have said, “you’re expressing in so many words that you think you’re a lot smarter and more formidable than me.”

Common Microaggressions

Business Insider published a list by Marguerite Ward of 15 “things people think are fine to say at work—but are actually racist, sexist, or offensive.” At the top of the list, “You’re so articulate.” I hate to have to bring it up, but President Biden was guilty of this one in the 2008 Democratic primary. He made this comment of President Obama. Was he tipping his hand at the time that he didn’t expect much from this competitor? I had a boss once who “congratulated” me for doing well at a meeting. Yet he never congratulated me at the time for the great work I was doing leading the most important publication in his department. Was that his way of letting slip that he didn’t think I was capable of much, so that doing well at a meeting was quite an achievement?

Here’s another one Ward shares: “Ha, you’re so OCD with how you manage projects” or “You work on so many things, it’s like you have ADHD.” I probably wouldn’t have mentioned ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), but I easily throw the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) term around, including when talking about myself. When it comes to myself, I may, indeed, be commenting on a potential psychological disorder, but I wouldn’t intentionally do that to another person. Hopefully, no one thought I was trying to out their mental health condition.

How about this one: “You’re transgender? Wow, you don’t look like it at all.” I don’t think I would be so dense as to put it this way. But there was a time when I might have said to a transperson, thinking it was a compliment, “You look great. I would have had no idea.” I realize now that this can indirectly express the prejudice that being transgender is something that’s a good thing if you can hide.

Another microaggression: Getting your co-workers mixed up and calling them by the wrong names. In doing this, you are expressing that you see these co-workers as interchangeable without individual identities that are worth remembering.

Similarly, telling a gay colleague that you also know a gay person, as in, “Oh, my friend, Paul, is gay, too,” expresses that you see all people within that group as interchangeable or basically the same. It reminds me of when people say, “Oh, I have a Jewish friend” or “I have a Black friend.”

Saying you have a “crazy boss” can be a problem, especially if you use the term, “hysterical.” That’s a term with a feminine origin that was used to diagnose “emotional” women. The correct way to put it now would be: “My boss is mentally ill” or perhaps “My boss is psychologically challenged.”

Mum’s the Word

The solution to most of these microaggressions is to think carefully before opening your mouth. Instead of potentially making an offensive statement—wittingly or unwittingly—just say nothing. In my case, I’m considering asking for the “restroom,” “powder room,” or “washroom.” Except, will those last two terms offend the ungroomed and unwashed? Maybe I’d better stick to “restroom.”

Do you train employees on what microaggressions are and how to avoid them?