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How To Deal With Micro Aggressions

Culture is created whether we like it or not and our only task should be to direct a healthy one whether at work, in the home or in our relationships.

By Sharmadean Reid

30 March 2023
O

ur environment is created by what we tolerate, and when we let the small stuff slide, it compounds into bigger issues. Instead of allowing it to fester, we speak up. We verbalise when a situation feels uncomfortable, regardless of if it is happening to us, or to a stranger. We want to build an equal world for all and that will only be possible if we uphold the tenets of equality, together.

Racism. Sexism. Any other -isms. Bullying. Microaggressions. Injustice. Anything that labels a group of people and oppresses them unstopped, unchecked, and unconfronted will grow in your world like a fungus.

When you let things slide, perhaps because you think they’re small or insignificant, you’re setting expectations. You’re enforcing loose boundaries about what you’re willing to tolerate. It’s up to you to choose healthy expectations for yourself and others.

When I was younger, I was sometimes hesitant to speak up due to social expectations. Speaking up means standing out, setting yourself apart and completely going against human nature of being a social animal. We don’t want to stand out. A few millennia ago, going against the tribe came with the risk of getting kicked out, and no one could survive the wilderness and bitter cold. Being separated from the group could literally mean death but that fear no longer serves us. Staying within a tribe for the sake of it is no longer a matter of life or death as we can always find new communities, but it is a case of integrity.

Women are constantly under pressure to live under the guise of sugar, spice and all things nice. Women are expected to be dainty and polite. To be tolerant. Standing up against something that doesn't sit right with you isn't considered polite or agreeable for a woman. Don’t Let The Small Stuff Slide is about breaking through that fear, trusting your intuition and saying what you stand for.

Perhaps someone in a meeting said something a little off-key and at the time it slipped under your radar. It's not until you're home that night reflecting on the day that you realize how unprofessional their statement was, but as you’re no longer in the moment, you brush it off. Or you are frustrated with yourself because you didn’t formulate an immediate and clear response. That's okay because it takes time to start prepping comebacks for the things that make you feel uncomfortable. You’re learning a new language. Start writing down statements that you can repeat the next time it happens. Practice saying them in your head and visualise yourself saying them calmly the next time you witness an incident. It could be as simple as starting with “When you do that, it makes us feel…” and then stating why it’s not acceptable.

Over time you’ll realise that for it to have an impact, you must address the issue as soon as possible. I was completely nervous and sweaty the first time I had to reprimand someone for saying something completely unprofessional in the office. My voice was shaking as it was a senior leader, but I knew that if I didn’t, it would set a precedent for our company culture and it would affect how others viewed me as a leader. Addressing it privately and immediately would always be the best possible recourse of action but if you realize it after the fact, send a text to arrange a coffee with that colleague or actively try to bump into them the next day. In the frustrating public incidents where you’ll never see this person again, chalk it up to experience and you’ll be quick to pick up on it next time.

Eventually, you’ll train yourself to listen out for certain signals and catch these moments in their tracks because if you don’t, your delayed response will appear random and irrelevant. Imagine being out with the girls and they leave you on your own all night. You wake up feeling unloved and sad but don't say anything. You let it build up and annoy you. You continue to feel disrespected and a year later, while on a girly holiday, you have an outburst. They’re rightly going to respond: ‘What are you on about? What party?’ because for them, they were oblivious. The best time to have raised your grievance was when you woke up the next day and decided it didn’t work for you. Set your boundaries and take responsibility because resentment matures like a fine wine.

For me, the approach of tackling the small stuff head-on was key for me to feel like I was gaining authority in my personal affairs but also creating a company culture that I would be proud of.

In our home lives, this could be about domestic duties. When you become the person who constantly removes used teabags from the counter, you’re setting expectations for how you want to be treated. That teabag is small, but letting it slide speaks volumes. At work, I’m afraid the small stuff comes at you daily. Mansplaining, not being invited to work functions, asking the female colleagues to make the meeting tea. The list goes on… My golden rule is NIP IT IN THE BUD immediately. Don’t let it grow into a poisonous flower. In my early business experience, it took me a while to realise how one toxic team member can affect the whole company. I distinctly remember the first time I had to let someone go because it wasn’t the right cultural fit. A new employee had been making so many small snide comments to a younger team member that I found her crying in the bathrooms. I was naive in workplace bullying but understood that my mistake was not to have picked it up the first time, instead I let it get to a point when one team member was traumatised and another was now out of a job.

What could I have done differently? My strategy is always to start from a place of kindness. Rather than get angry, defensive or accusatory I simply talk to them as if they were an angry child (because to me, the unkindness is coming from their wounded inner child)

That's not a nice thing to say is it? How do you think that makes her feel? Why would you say something like that?

I also use phrases that show that their normal is not my normal, thus recalibrating their world to fit other viewpoints:

What decision-making process did you take to come to this conclusion? Is this a normal way of communicating for you? Is this how your family and friends talk to each other?

A good example of this is with a former boyfriend who frequently swore at me during arguments, adding extra wounds to an already heated moment, and I had to explain to him that in my Jamaican, church-going family, we just didn’t use profanity in that way. His family would always speak to each other like this so for him, it was normal. Of course, I swear in casual conversation, but not as an insult and most definitely not to a partner or friend. To him, it was no big deal, but to me, it was ultra hurtful and I couldn’t let it slide.

My final strategy is to show them how unscalable their microaggressions are - although this can sometimes feel patronising and needs to be delivered in a considered tone. I want them to understand that small negativity only works in small situations. At this point, I start to try and get the person to understand that what we all want is to be successful in various ways. We might want more power, money, and freedom. That might translate into more sales for the company, better access to hiring talent or a promotion to the next stage in your career. Will this small-mindedness get us there? Understanding people's motivations can help your argument. So I say:

I know that this might be working for you now, but will this approach work to get us to the next stage? I remember you saying that XXX was important to you, do you think this is the best way to achieve that goal? I understand that this might be okay now, in this small room and in this small world, but would you be okay with this being out publicly and in the bigger world?

We also need to remember when the aggressor is us. I can also let my lower self take over when I’m physically and emotionally drained. When I act untoward, or what I know to be my worst self, I apologise immediately, sometimes right at the end of the meeting. This breeds a culture of compassion and respect. I will now apologise immediately to team members that I slighted and most importantly, I apologise to my son, letting him know that even as adult caregivers, we have our low moments.

Over time, if you nip all the bad buds and don’t let the small stuff slide, you’ll be setting clear healthy boundaries and a thriving environment. If it feels wrong in your belly, deal with it there and then. Neither you should nor anyone else should have to hold those negative feelings or trauma as it will eat you up inside. Let go of the anxiety by saying how you feel.

The Short Stack

We want to build an equal world for all and that will only be possible if we uphold the tenets of equality, together.

By Sharmadean Reid

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