Communication problems usually happen on the interpersonal level when people fail to understand each other or say something offensive, thus spoiling the relationships. However, the roots of such problems can be traced to deep cultural differences (Samovar et al., 2017). The inability to recognize cultural diversity may lead to negative outcomes in interpersonal conversations. For instance, it becomes easy for an individual to commit microaggression, whether by accident or purposely. According to Washington et al. (2020), microaggression can be defined as verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. Unlike the obvious racial or ethnic slurs, the acts of microaggression are subtle; moreover, microaggression may be committed unintentionally, even by well-intentioned individuals. For example, it is unlikely that therapists intentionally discriminate against their patients and create disadvantageous environments for clients of color (Lee et al., 2018). Therefore, it is necessary to understand how cultural identity and stereotypes form and how one should react to microaggressions in order to protect one’s mental health and preserve healthy interpersonal or professional relationships.
Exploration of Cultural Identity Formation
Since microaggression usually stems from the deeply-rooted negative stereotypes about particular groups, it is necessary to explore how cultural identity can influence it. Culture is a complex concept that incorporates several deep structure institutions, such as family, community, and religion (Samovar et al., 2017). These institutions create the basic framework of life, sending the individuals vital cultural messages. For instance, cultural institutions form the notions about right and wrong, communicate the expectations from life, and teach where the individual’s loyalty should lie (Samovar et al., 2017). In addition, the messages sent by the cultural institutions endure through generations of children; they are deeply felt and form the backbone of an individual’s identity.
Any human being acquires cultural identity through numerous social interactions rather than straight after birth. Initially, individuals develop their “I” identity, which defines their personality (Samovar et al., 2017). Later in life, identities based on “I” become supplemented with the “We”, or community-based identities. For example, a particular person may consider themselves smart, attractive, generous, kind, and humble, which would be their “I” identity. Once this person obtains sufficient experience of social interactions within the cultural institutions, they become connected to cultural groups. In the end, a person develops a clear association with a set of various “We” identities (Samovar et al., 2017). For instance, they may develop ties to ethnicity, religion, and nation, identifying themselves as a White Protestant American or a Hispanic Catholic American. This mechanism of cultural identity is not exclusive to the United States since it works similarly throughout the world. People develop basic personal identities and become aligned with various communities later in life. The functioning of deep structure institutions makes it possible to replicate and reinforce identities through multiple generations.
Consequently, the negative stereotypes may also become ingrained and survive in human subconsciousness as a part of cultural identity despite the change in official government agenda. As a result, a cultural identity that contains negative stereotypes may significantly influence the individual’s behavior in interpersonal communications. In the case of the modern-day United States, racism is strictly condemned; any forms of discrimination are usually prohibited by decent employers and serve as a cause for the offender’s termination. However, employees of color are not safe from the racially-based acts of microaggression since White privilege has been a cultural norm in America for a long time (Washington et al., 2020). In this regard, it is important to realize that not everyone who commits microaggression is a racist. There might be a possibility that these people genuinely wanted to be respectful or make a compliment, but their cultural identity got better of them. Therefore, it is important to understand how to call out microaggression in order to preserve healthy relationships correctly. Whereas calling out microaggressive behaviors is necessary for protecting own mental health, immediately labeling people as racist is equally harmful as silence.
Experience of Microaggression and its Impact
Due to my identity, I have experienced microaggression at the workplace on several occasions. I have been working a full-time job at the kindergarten for some time. I am a young Black woman, and some of my elder White colleagues said things like: “It is good to see more people like you in our profession, they are a rare sight.” They also tried to encourage me by saying that our profession sees no skin color, and it does not matter who you are if you love kids. I did not fully realize that it was microaggressive behavior back in the time. As such, I did not feel offended or disturbed by their words. For a moment, I felt somewhat confused and wanted to ask what my colleagues meant by saying that people like me are a rare sight in the profession or why they bring race into the conversation. However, I decided against it because my colleagues were nice, helpful, and friendly. I did not want to spoil our professional and interpersonal relationships.
In this regard, my colleagues were lucky that I did not overreact to their microaggression. In hindsight, my reaction was still far from optimal since I did not react at all. I should have talked to my colleagues since it would have been in their best interests. Even when a person attempts to be helpful and inclusive, they might say something stereotyped or biased (Aguilar, 2006). By talking to my colleagues politely, I could have warned them about the dangers of their remarks and prevented them from repeating microaggression.
In my opinion, my colleagues were not intentionally trying to belittle Black people as a population group. On the contrary, they tried to make a compliment and be nice to me. However, now I can see that their words were awkward, and other Black people in my place might have become offended. In particular, the remark about “rare sight in the profession” can be perceived as a well-veiled way of saying that Black people can rarely become educators, which is an obvious negative stereotype. The claims that skin color does not matter can be seen as a sign of not recognizing Blackness or, even worse, perceiving it as something wrong (Washington et al., 2020). Regardless, my colleagues were probably impacted by their cultural backgrounds and life experience, so I should have gone with my first instinct and asked them potentially hard questions. According to Williams (2021), members of the dominant social group are typically unaware of microaggressions. Therefore, my colleagues committed microaggression unintentionally, so increasing their awareness of the issue would prevent the repetition of microaggressive behaviors on their part.
Interpersonal communication is a tricky process — occasionally, people hurt relationships by saying something insensitive or stereotypical. In some cases, they may be unaware of the inappropriateness of their words. Sometimes, people realize that they said wrong things and wish that they could take them back. However, their pride or fear stops them from communication recovery, significantly hindering the restoration of relationships. Aguilar (2006) offers the six-step Communication Recovery Model for such situations, which makes it possible to acknowledge mistakes and provides a painless way of rebuilding interpersonal relationships damaged by insensitivity. My experience was different from Aguilar’s model since I was in the victim’s place, and my colleagues were almost certainly unaware of committing a microaggression. In this regard, now I would have acted in a way that would have given my colleagues a chance to use the six-step Communication Recovery Model.
Most importantly, I would have politely asked my colleagues to clarify the meaning of their statements. I remember feeling confused, and Washington et al. (2020) suggest an immediate response to microaggression in such cases. I would have used a probing question in order to evaluate my colleagues’ intent. In Step 1, I would have given a sign to my colleagues that I am open to their feedback, and our conversation is still calm and informal. According to Baker College (2021), being direct can be a good approach if the aggression is minor enough. Therefore, I would have tried to give my colleagues the benefit of the doubt in order to minimize the potential conflict.
In Step 2, I would have explained to my colleagues how a Black person might become offended by their words. Consequently, my colleagues would have acknowledged the negative impact of their behavior. According to Aguilar (2006), it is important to realize that good intention does not eliminate the negative effects of insensitive words. Therefore, I would have made this point clear to my colleagues so that they could avoid microaggressive comments, statements, and compliments in the future.
Steps 3 and 4 would have mostly depended on my colleagues since I do not believe forcing an apology from someone is beneficial for interpersonal relationships. On my part, I would have kept things professional by asking my colleagues to refrain from remarks which people might find offensive. Baker College (2021) recommends letting the perpetrators of minor microaggression know that a simple apology and correction of the behavior is enough to resolve the situation. Since my colleagues were nice and friendly on other occasions, I am almost certain that they would have apologized and promised to stop unintentional microaggression from happening.
However, I would have continued to pay attention to the words of my colleagues for some time since Step 5 — adjustment of behavior is crucial for Step 6 — moving forward. The repetition of microaggression negates any recovery effort since it shows that the perpetrator did not understand the feedback (Aguilar, 2006). In the case of my colleagues would have continued to commit microaggression despite my calm, polite explanations, I would have had no other choice but to contact the HR manager. However, knowing my colleagues well enough, I think they would have corrected their behavior after a simple, polite conversation.
My Plan: Strategies for the Future
The knowledge of the six-step Communication Recovery Model and the reevaluation of my experience with microaggression at the workplace serves as a solid foundation for dealing with microaggressive behaviors. Aguilar (2006) offers twelve specific techniques for addressing stereotypes, biases, and insensitivity without blame or guilt. I find these techniques attractive since they emphasize constructive, polite dialogue with the perpetrator, which I believe is necessary for communication recovery.
In my opinion, two of the twelve techniques are best suited for addressing microaggressions. Firstly, I would deploy the approach of assuming good intent and letting the person explain their words (Aguilar, 2006). Microaggressions might stem from the deeply-ingrained cultural bias and lack of awareness about culturally-sensitive matters. As a result, the person who commits microaggression might do it unintentionally, and a polite explanation would likely result in correction of behavior. If microaggression was minor enough, giving the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt before filing an official complaint is advised for mitigating the conflict (Baker College, 2021). By assuming the lack of evil intent, it becomes possible to address the issue peacefully and offer the perpetrator a chance to correct their behavior. Therefore, this technique can be recommended as a versatile way of taking action against microaggression.
Assuming the good intent can be combined with a technique of asking a direct, non-blaming open-ended question about the microaggressive words. This approach works well in any situation related to microaggression since it poses a low risk to relationships and minimizes the tension. Washington et al. (2020) recommend asking a probing question, which gives an opportunity to better gauge the perpetrator’s intent. Depending on the reaction, one can either explain the impact produced by microaggression in detail or move forward if the perpetrator made a naïve mistake and promised to correct their behavior.
Overall, my plan for dealing with the potential cases of microaggression is based on two personal convictions. Most importantly, I believe in a benefit of the doubt — if a person was friendly to me before, and I have not noticed explicit discriminatory attitudes on their part, I will assume good intent even in their awkward words. However, I will talk to them immediately in order to clarify the meaning of their remarks. In addition, I believe that unprofessionalism in calling out microaggression in the workplace is unacceptable, regardless of the perpetrator’s intent. Instead of insulting and blaming the perpetrator, I would rather ask an HR manager to assist me. Overall, I consider responding to microaggression a necessity since its harmful impact should not be ignored. At the same time, I believe that response to microaggression should be focused on correcting microaggressive behaviors and communication recovery rather than the perpetrator’s punishment.
Unlike overt indignities, microaggressions are subtle and can be committed by well-intending but unaware individuals. The mechanism of cultural identity formation creates the basis for ingraining harmful microaggressive behaviors in subconsciousness. Therefore, it is necessary to confront microaggressions; however, the techniques used to call out and correct microaggressive behaviors should promote communication recovery rather than emphasize the punishment of perpetrators. In this regard, I support the approaches of assuming good intent and asking direct non-blaming questions. These easy and versatile techniques prevent microaggressions from being left unnoticed, and at the same time, facilitate constructive dialogue, correct harmful behaviors, and lead to eventual communication recovery.
Aguilar, L. (2006). Ouch! That stereotype hurts: Communicating respectfully in a diverse world. Walk the Talk.
Baker College. (2021). Examples of workplace microaggressions and how to reduce them.
Lee, E., Tsang, A. K. T., Bogo, M., Johnstone, M., & Herschman, J. (2018). Enactments of racial microaggression in everyday therapeutic encounters. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 88(3), 211-236.
Samovar, L.A., Porter, R. E., McDaniel, E. R., & Sexton Roy, C. (2017). Communication between cultures. (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Washington, E. F., Hall Birch, A., & Morgan Roberts, L. (2020). When and how to respond to microaggressions. Harvard Business Review.
Williams, M. T. (2021). Racial microaggressions: Critical questions, state of the science, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 16(5), 880-885.