They can happen at work or in a personal capacity: Microaggressions are everyday slights, insults, and negative verbal and nonverbal communications that, whether intentional or not, can make someone feel belittled, disrespected, unheard, unsafe, othered, tokenized, gaslighted, impeded, and/or like they don’t belong. And similar to biases, the key is to develop our empathy skills and become intentional so that we recognize the microaggression forming and stop it before it happens.
Each individual microaggression can be harmful in the short-term, and as microaggressions accumulate daily, they can take a significant toll on someone’s life and career in the long term. People with underrepresented identities encounter microaggressions on top of the stress everyone has in work and outside of work, which is an unfair disadvantage in our work and in our lives. As allies, it’s our job to understand what “microaggressions” are, and make sure we don’t do them. You may see some things here that you do or have done. At one time or another, all good allies find ourselves making a mistake. It’s our job as allies to listen, learn, unlearn, relearn, make mistakes, apologize, and keep learning.
When we do our work as allies to reduce microaggressions, we often focus on verbal microaggressions. However, nonverbal microaggressions can be just as harmful.
Many microaggressions are nonverbal, so they can be subtle. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, one of my many work-study jobs was on a psychology research study. We used Paul Ekman’s foundational work in the 1970s on microexpressions to study parents’ interactions with their children. The study primed parents with specific facial expressions to show their kids, and mapped how those expressions affected their kids’ success on individual tests and collaborative projects. I used a lot of what I learned studying facial expressions and Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System in my work as a documentary filmmaker. A documentarian is mostly a silent interviewer, so nonverbal feedback can be a very powerful tool in moving an interviewee where you want them to go—and giving them encouragement if they are feeling impostor syndrome, shyness, or uncertainty.
Our facial expressions can convey our feelings and thoughts. Seeing another person’s facial expressions can change how we show up. When someone is experiencing fear, nervousness, or what Ekman calls perceived “threat-to-self,” it makes a big difference whether you show them contempt or enjoyment, confusion or understanding, disinterest or interest. When I’m on stage speaking in front of an audience, I look for people in the audience to grab onto, who are genuinely listening, encouraging me, and giving me nonverbal feedback. This can affect presentations, meetings, performance reviews, interviews, and other times when someone perceives there is a lot at stake.
Ekman’s work is used by countless researchers as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Dalai Lama (on work around compassion and emotions), and graphic animation studios (To speak to his expertise, Ekman was an advisor for the Pixar movie Inside Out).
A close counterpart to facial expressions is body language. A few key pieces of body language to keep in mind in avoiding microaggressions are closed body language and dominant power positioning. We might have closed body language or specific facial expressions due to a disability, a cultural norm, a cold room, a bias, or a reaction to something outside that moment altogether. Become aware of how you might make people feel inadvertently, and change it if you can.
Closed body language includes crossed arms, folded hands, crossed legs, turning your body away from someone, putting your hands in your pockets, looking down at your phone or the table, and putting your open computer between you and another person. These can literally put a barrier between you and the other person, whether that person is sitting or standing across from you, or they are giving a presentation in front of the room or on stage. When your body language is closed, you may be showing a person that you are closed off to the ideas or experiences they are sharing. And you might actually be more closed off to what they’re saying. Looking away, disinterested, tired, or otherwise occupied also can be felt as a significant microaggression.
Dominant power positioning includes hands on hips, hands behind your head, legs open wide while sitting (taking up lots of space), or one leg crossed perpendicular to the other over your knee. This can also include putting your arm on someone’s shoulder or wheelchair, standing over them while they are sitting down, or moving too far into their personal space. All can imply dominance over the other person, be very off-putting, and shut them down.
Microaggressions can also be nonverbal and passive: when we fear saying or doing the wrong thing, we might avoid someone altogether. This avoidance can have long-term effects on someone’s life. The first time I learned about avoidance was in 2016, while talking with Victor Calise, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Earlier that year we held our Ability in Tech Summit to address DEI for people with disabilities in tech. I shared with him that for our career fair portion of the event, tech companies repeatedly said they “couldn’t” come because their teams had not been trained on how to talk to people with disabilities, or they didn’t know how to accommodate them. Victor told me avoidance is commonly experienced by people with disabilities—and since then I’ve recognized it happening with Black, LGBTQIA+, and Muslim colleagues and friends, as well as people with other marginalized identities.
Avoidance can also occur as a result of microaggressions. Due to discrimination, microaggressions, and lack of accessibility or inclusion—or the anticipation of these—people with underrepresented identities often avoid social situations. A 2018 Australian study found 31% of disabled people engaged in avoidance behaviors because of their disability.
How to reduce nonverbal microaggressions
Here are a few ways we can overcome nonverbal microaggressions so that we do no harm.
Prime yourself: In advance of a meeting or other interaction, prime yourself ahead of time to genuinely feel the emotion you want to present to someone. Microexpressions happen in an instant, just like first impressions. Ask yourself ahead of time: How do you want to show up for this person? What do you want to learn from them, how do you want them to feel? For example, if you want someone you are interviewing to show their best self in the interview, prime yourself first with thoughts of welcoming, compassionate empathy, and inclusion.
Seek to become more self-aware in the moment: Be aware of what your facial expressions and body language are conveying. Are you conveying the message you want to convey? If not, change it if you’re able to do so. Sometimes when I’m listening to someone give a presentation in a meeting when the room is too cold, I find myself frowning or crossing my arms because of the cold. Obviously, a frown is not what I want to convey to the speaker! So I quickly put on a sweater, remove the frown, and work on giving positive, encouraging facial expressions, even nodding.
Practice empathetic listening: We teach our kids “whole body listening” and then somehow forget it as an adult. If you want to show someone you are listening and care about the conversation you’re having, open your body to the person you’re listening to: if you’re physically able to, face the person speaking, unfold your arms and legs, and put your feet flat on the floor. Try leaning into the conversation a bit to show that you’re listening. It will make a world of difference in how you both show up for each other.
Adapted excerpt from How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier, Workplace by Melinda Briana Epler (McGraw Hill, September 2021).
Melinda Briana Epler is the author of How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier, Workplace, and she is the CEO of Change Catalyst, where she works with with tech companies to address diversity and inclusion.