Microaggression and Customer Service

When you open the doors of a customer service business, anyone can come in. Whether that business is a coffee shop with physical doors or a whether the business is serving customers on the phone or internet chat function. The staff are there to create a pleasant environment while the customer purchases the thing or service being provided.

The customers, however, have no code of conduct they must follow. We can’t change the public. How can service workers accommodate them without accepting indignity?

What is microaggression?

Invisibility: People who work in customer service in high traffic areas experience:

  • People walking past them, as if they are not there. No hello, no eye contact.
  • When the patron wants something, then they approach for a service.
  • Customers see you as your job function. They don’t notice you as a human. (You are Mr. Parking Garage Attendant or Ms Barista, not Jim Smith or Barbara Johnson.)

If many people treat you like you are not there, or that you are a machine-like thing doing a something for them, you need some ways to not go home feeling drained.

Assuming: Customers, or non-customers in and around your business may assume:

  • A staff person is of lower rank and can be ordered around.
  • Anyone dressed exotically or with non-traditional hair styles are open to comments (negative or positive) about their appearance, while at work.
  • For that matter, any young person, or any woman is open to comments (negative or positive) about their appearance, while at work. This sometimes happens to men, too, but it is less common.
  • A person of Asian or other non-western European descent is seen as a recent immigrant or somehow still part of the old-country identity (and not wholly American), even if they are many generations removed from immigrants.
  • That the white person is the boss and the darker person is an assistant. (If there is a conflict, the customer defers to the white staff member.)
  • Customers may assume that you are willing to have casual physical contact (like a hand at your waist, or a pat on your hand.) In a business environment, the only universally acceptable touch is a handshake.

These behaviors, even if they are all well-meaning, can be emotionally draining.

Why does microaggression hurt some people and not other people?

The more vulnerable the staff member — in terms of both the business hierarchy and the society in general — the more likely that customers or higher ranked staff can persist in saying things that make the staff person feel invisible or demeaned.

Younger staff are more vulnerable, partly due to status, and partly because they have less experience maintaining personal boundaries at work. In addition, other people on staff — who are from other generations — have been working with different assumptions about what is acceptable. Social norms are changing as Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials work together. These generations do not agree about what is normal and acceptable. Even within generations, people disagree.

People who have experienced aggression or microaggression — on the job or off — are more likely to react to potential threats. This is a physical/mental reaction based on experience; it is not a conscious choice. Everyone has something that triggers this kind of reaction, even if you don’t want to call it aggression.

Hurtful interpersonal exchanges are like bee stings. Just like people who have been stung by bees –and some who have not — get agitated when a bee flies in, people who have been demeaned at work will tense up when they perceive that they are being made invisible or are being denied the respect that they are due. Even if the bee, or mean person, is on the other side of the room, someone who is tensed against stings will  keep track of a potential threat. Like a distracting noise or light, the distraction of being in a place that has a threatening/insulting person wastes mental energy and makes it harder to concentrate.


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