Is it a microaggression, or is he clueless?

Microaggression is when a person consciously or subconsciously makes negative assumptions or uses language that is insulting about another person. People can do or say things that insult others without being aware they are doing it. If you are a person who does not intend to be insulting, there are things you can do:

  1. Notice the more subtle forms of microaggression (listed below.) Pay attention to moments when your assumptions could be hurtful.
  2. When you notice, ask questions to find out if your assumptions are negatively affecting the other person.
  3. If someone questions a remark you made, listen. There is no need to defend yourself, if you are open to learning. If you learn, and understand the nature of the hurt, you can become a better ally. Refusing to change gives the message that you do not respect the other person enough to make an adjustment to your speech.

I wrote about this last summer, after an incident in a clothing store.  In that case, when the remarks were questioned, both the employee and management got defensive and insisted on their right to treat people this way.

Microaggression in the workplace:

  • Q: Can a younger employee call his co-worker his “work mom.”
  • A: Yes. If she accepts it as a compliment.
  • Q: Is it a microaggression to assume she will like it.
  • A: Maybe, probably.
  • Q: Is it a microaggression to insist that it is a compliment when she says it isn’t.
  • A: Yes. It may even be outward aggression.

The problem of “Work Mom” came to the attention of 

Two professionals worked together. One was a young man and the other a middle-aged woman. The young man got help fitting in from everyone, as he got used to his workplace. He chose to start addressing the middle aged woman as “mom” and considered it a compliment, since she was helpful and supportive of him.

She asked him to stop. He did not.

Alison Green, the author of Ask A Manager, gave her advice: Be firm. Repeat the demand that he stop. If he is not complying with her request to call you by your name, then he is at fault. Escalate this to the Human Resources Department, because this young man needs to get the message.

What is the message? If you want to steer clear of this microaggression, it’s a no-brainer. Call people what they ask you to call them. Let me repeat that: Call people what they ask you to call them. That means pronouncing unusual names correctly, that means using nicknames you don’t care for, that means using “they” as a pronoun when you want to say “she.”

AskAManager affirmed that “Work Mom” is demeaning. What she doesn’t address is that the young man is taking an undeserved privilege by insisting on not using his co-worker’s name.

Subtle forms of microaggression:

Assuming a person is of lower rank or somehow up to no good. Examples: Assuming a person is an employee — not a customer — based on skin color or clothing. Assuming that the white person is the boss and the darker person is an assistant. A clerk following a customer based on race, assuming they are planning to shoplift. Assuming an Asian and other non-white American is 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.

This type of behavior can make people feel demeaned or made invisible (as if managers are always white and male, employees are always minorities…)

Remedy: Ask a question unless you are sure you know who is who. Examples:

Hi, I have a meeting with the supervisor Angela Jones, who is Angela/or who is Ms Jones?

Do you know where I can find help to get that off the top shelf (instead of assuming the casually dressed Latino man is working, not shopping in that store.)

Using insulting language that is common in our culture — but is insulting to a minority group:  Crazy, lame, autistic being used as a description of someone behaving badly. Old anti-ethnic words that are still in common use, like gyp or paddy wagon. Using “That is Christian of you” as a synonym for that is good and “That’s so gay” as a synonym for that is weird or otherwise flamboyant behavior.

Remedy: If someone calls you on it, say something like, “Wow, I’ve used that expressions for years. I didn’t realize how insulting it could be! I will make the effort to rid it from my vocabulary. (Even better, add an apology.)



Deciding the consequence of personal decisions. It could start out sounding like it is a caring remark, but it implies something demeaning. People who talk about how “hard it is” or “how brave you are” to (fill in the blank) be religious, have tattoos, be LBGTQ, choose to let your hair be grey…

Remedy: If you notice you’ve hurt someone, or they call you on it, say something like, “You’re right, it would be hard for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard for you. Would you tell me more about your religion? Your tattoos, Your spouse?…”



It is easy to see how mistakes can happen, and someone can hurt someone else’s feeling. The proof of the intention is in the reaction to someone who questions your remark. The remedy is to ask questions and not assume that how you would think or feel about something is what everyone would think or feel.

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