Understanding microaggressions: 8 common examples in the workplace and inclusive alternatives
Microaggressions are common in the workplace. They are the everyday, subtle, and often unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate bias toward historically marginalized groups. Microaggressions can impact a person’s ability to do their job, sense of safety, and overall happiness.
The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination (or “macroaggressions”) is that people who commit microaggressions might not even be aware they are doing something wrong. Learning how to recognize microaggressions and change language accordingly can have an enormous impact on the happiness, productivity, and retention of our colleagues.
At EF Education First, we continually seek to educate ourselves and use language as a tool for building understanding, so we’ve compiled a list of common microaggression examples and alternatives for a more inclusive environment.
Scenario: “Where’s your family from/where were you born?”
Alternative: “I’m from this place, where are you from?”
Why: Asking where someone is from may imply that you assume that person is not from the same country as you, which pressures them to defend their identity. Instead, share where you grew up and ask where that person is from, without suggesting that it may not be the same place.
Scenario: “Wow, you are so articulate!”
Alternative: “Thank you! That presentation was informative.”
Why: Mentioning someone’s ability to articulate implies that you’re surprised by someone’s ability to do so. Empower others based on their talents and celebrate their wins.
Scenario: Giving someone a nickname that is easier for you to pronounce.
Alternative: Ask them, “How do you pronounce your name?”
Why: Give people the respect of calling them by their preferred name regardless of how different it may seem to you. Work on your pronunciation over time; even if it’s a work in progress, your efforts will be appreciated.
Scenario: “You’re in a senior role?”
Alternative: “What is your role?”
Why: Questioning if someone is in a senior role implies you are surprised by someone’s success. Never make assumptions about who might be the most senior person in the room.
Scenario: “I support you. I have friends like you!”
Alternative: “I’m an ally.”
Why: Explaining that you are not racist or discriminating because you have friends in a marginalized group ignores the individual experience of the person you’re talking to. Establish yourself as an ally and convey that you are willing to listen and learn from someone’s experience.
Scenario: “Racism isn’t something that exists at our company.”
Alternative: “What has been your experience at our company?”
Why: If you make assumptions based on your own experience or dismiss a peer’s concerns about race, ethnicity, or culture at work, you establish that there is no room for open dialogue or differences in the workplace. Understanding individuals’ experiences can help us become more educated and better ourselves and those around us.
Scenario: “I didn’t mean to sound racist.”
Alternative: “Can we have a conversation about why what I said was racist? I want to learn.”
Why: Validation is critical. Even if your intention was not to say something offensive, you still might have offended someone. Have a conversation to avoid language that could be offensive or misinterpreted in the future.
Scenario: “Can I touch your hair?”
Alternative: “What is your morning routine?”
Why: It’s ok to be curious about someone’s experiences, but this question both infringes on the person’s space and implies that the person you’re talking to doesn’t fit a societal standard. Learning about and understanding someone’s personal experience creates a space for listening and learning.
When it comes to educating ourselves and changing how we engage with others, we need to overcome our fear of being wrong. The best way to do that is never to underestimate someone based on assumptions and always ask considerate questions. At EF we believe that the world is better when people try to understand one another. By educating ourselves and others on important topics like this, we aim to do a better job of opening the world for everyone.