Comments and Questions People Think Are Acceptable at Work, Might be Offensive
Microaggressions are unconscious expressions of racism or sexism. They come out in seemingly innocuous comments by people who might be well-intentioned.
From telling a new female worker that she “looks really good for her age” to asking a black colleague if that is her natural hair, microaggressions often exist in the workplace, too. And they can make a workplace feel unsafe and hostile. Because microaggressions are communicated through language, it is very important to pay attention to how we talk, especially in the workplace.
Because microaggressions are so subtle, it’s often hard to know if you’re committing one or if you’re on the receiving end. Since the comments are ambiguous, the recipient is apt to feel vaguely insulted, but since the words look and sound complimentary, (they’re often positive), he or she can’t rightly feel insulted and doesn’t know how to react.
Here are some of the most common microaggressions:
‘You’re so well-spoken’
When a white colleague tells a colleague of color ‘You’re so articulate’ or ‘You speak so well,’ the remark suggests that they assumed the person in question would be less articulate due to their ethnicity or race.
Commenting on a black person’s language or speaking habits has a complicated history, where black persons were ridiculed for substituting aks for ask. This is a problem that African-Americans especially encounter in the workplace or school.
Often, Caucasian persons expect black folks to be less competent. Speaking as a white person, when we register surprise at a black individual’s articulateness, we also send the not-so-subtle message that that person is part of a group that we don’t expect to see sitting at the table, taking on a leadership role.
Sometimes women hear the same type of comments, or are the recipient of “mansplaining”, a man explaining something that the woman already knows, as though speaking to a child, and from the perspective that she can’t be that bright or knowledgeable so he has to explain.
What to say instead: Nothing. You can commend people on their specific ideas or insights, but commenting on how people speak is unnecessary.
‘You’re transgender? Wow, you don’t look like it at all’
Telling a transgender person that they don’t “look trans” might appear to be a compliment.
But trans people like know that while these people have good intentions, it’s an offensive comment that implies being trans isn’t desirable.
People assume that the trans person’s goal must be to look as much like a male as possible (or like a female) — and that trans masculine folk who don’t look like masculine men, or trans female folk who don’t look female have failed. It indicates that the speaker feels looking as close as possible to those who identify with the gender they were born should be what trans people aim for.
What to do instead: Say nothing.
‘Oh, sorry, wrong person’
If you’re an underrepresented minority, and there’s one other person of your identity in the room, there’s a chance that the majority group will confuse your names.
This manifests itself as well in persons calling all Hispanic males “Jose”, or Hispanic females as “Maria” rather than learn their individual names.
What to say instead: Learn your coworkers’ names. It’s a pretty basic concept.
“Oh, you’re gay? You should meet George. He too is gay!’
Many well-intentioned straight people offer their LGBTQ friends and co-workers —to set them up with another LGBTQ person they know.
Just because two people you know have their sexual orientation in common, doesn’t mean they’d be a match. There are fewer people that LGBTQ friends and co-works can date, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have standards in personality type, values, and interests.
The same applies for people who say, “I have a friend who’s gay” or “I have a friend who’s black” to prove that they are not sexist, homophobic, or racist. It’s offensive to people in those communities, don’t do it!
What to do instead: Say nothing. If your coworker of any sexual orientation wants your help meeting new people, they’ll ask you.
‘My boss is crazy’
Calling your female boss “crazy” or “hysterical” has sexist undertones, because these words have a long, problematic history.
In the past, especially in 19th century Europe, women who had anxiety or who were seen as troublemakers were often diagnosed as being ‘hysterical’ Freud’s first patient, in the mid-20th century diagnosed his first female as “hysterical”. The word ‘hysterical’ comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus, signifying that the so-called disease was specific to women. So, when you call a woman “crazy,” it suggests that her concerns or actions are illogical, rather than the result of critical thinking.
What to say instead: Try to understand your boss’s perspective rather than ascribing her actions as illogical. If you still don’t agree, you could say: “I don’t understand your perspective on this” — then ask her to clarify for you.
‘Where are you actually from?’ or “What an interesting last name, where are you from?”
Asking someone about their ethnic heritage appears to just be a way to get to know someone. For Hispanics, Asians, and Middle Eastern employees, the question could lead the employee to think that employment decisions are being made due to their race, National Origin or ancestry! Hearing that question over and over can imply that a person isn’t really American or doesn’t truly belong in their country, just because of their appearance.
The question assumes that the person is either not American or is an outsider. Particularly in our present political environment, this type of questioning can leave an employee upset or fearful of discrimination.
What to say instead: Nothing. If the person in question wants to discuss their identity, they can bring it up at their own discretion.
‘The way you’ve overcome your disability is so inspiring’
People with disabilities like women and ethnic or racial minorities, have to deal with microaggressions too. Once at a client’s offices, the office manager who had a tracheostomy tube, dialed the conference room in which I was sitting from her phone. The phone showed that the extension she was calling from was R2D2, a star wars character that had a very mechanical voice. I was appalled but the employee said it was endearing. I made her change the notification back to her extension number or her name.
Conversations commenting on a person’s disabilities or identifying a person’s disabilities can make co-workers uncomfortable, and ultimately have them perceive employment decisions are being made based on their disability.
If you have a coworker who has a disability, avoid tropes like telling them their disability is “inspiring,” or tip-toeing around it by referring to their disability to a “special need.”
“I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning,” comedian and activist Stella Young said at TEDxSydney.
In other words, you shouldn’t be shocked when your coworker with a disability is able to accomplish just as much as their able-bodied peers, and sometimes more.
What to do instead: Say nothing.
‘Your name is so hard to pronounce’ or changing the persons name so that it’s easier to pronounce”.
This is one of my pet peeves. I have a friend named Jamal who told me that it’s okay to call him Jeremy. I asked, “Why would I do that?” and he explained to me how he let everyone call him Jeremy because it was easier to pronounce. I was outraged. Another client “Fatima” emphasis on the first “a” allowed people to call her “Fatima”, emphasis on the “i”. I asked her why she would do that and she said it was easier to let people call her something that wasn’t the accurate pronunciation rather than keep correcting them!
The remark suggests that the person in question does not fit in culturally or linguistically, and that their identity is not worth taking time to learn.
What to say instead: If you can’t pronounce a colleague’s name, just ask them how to say it. Don’t point out that it’s foreign or unfamiliar to you.
‘I think you’re in the wrong room — this is the programmers’ meeting’
Women in engineering and math related roles find this mis-assumption offensive and frequent. Men assume that a woman does not have the math skills so wouldn’t have this role or job title. Another comment that seems to be complimentary but is not is a co-worker saying “She’s one of the boys” due to her role in a math related project. She’s not “one of the boys” and it can be perceived as offensive.
What to say instead: Don’t assume people don’t belong or make them feel as if they’re outsiders.
‘Do you even know what Snapchat is (or Twitter, or Instagram)?‘
Those who believe that only those in their 20s and 30s could possibly know about memes and Twitter are stereotyping older people.
And while joking about your gray-haired colleague’s texting habits seems innocent, age discrimination is a serious problem in many workplaces. In tech, for instance, older professionals said they have problems getting hired despite a litany of past experience.
These sort of innocent comments can lead to, say, older workers not getting new training opportunities, being left out of the workplace social circle, and other signs of illegal age discrimination.
What to do instead: Once again, say nothing.
‘Are you an intern? You look so young!’
By complementing a woman on her appearance, in a professional setting, you are reinforcing sexist beliefs about women’s worth — that women must be attractive, and this is a primary function of their social role.
Although we advise clients that persons under 40 do not fall into a “protected class”, comments about their age, particularly to women, can be offensive and dismissive.
When an older male colleague tells a junior female colleague ‘You look so young’ or ‘You look like a student,’ the comment focuses attention on her appearance rather than on her credentials, and she may feel that she is being dismissed or perceived to be less than competent. Commenting on someone’s youth also implies that they seem inexperienced or potentially unqualified for their job.
What to say instead: Nothing. There’s no reason to comment on a coworker’s appearance. If you genuinely want to know their job title, look it up in a company directory.
‘Is that your real hair?’
Receiving comments about one’s natural hair is a frequent struggle for African-American women in particular. Black women’s textured hair is often seen as “less professional” than smooth hair.
I’m familiar with at least one lawsuit brought against a company who disciplined a black woman for wearing her hair in dreadlocks and told her that she could not wear her hair in that style. At least once a week someone would ask her if she thought her hair was unprofessional. Eventually, they wrote her up for violating the dress code, and they lost the lawsuit that she brought against the company.
For black women, the bias against natural hair results in higher levels of anxiety about their appearance. One in five black women feel socially pressured to straighten their hair for work, which is twice the rate for white women.
What to say instead: Nothing. A person’s natural hair, regardless of their ethnicity, should be accepted as professional and workplace-friendly.
(Interrupting) ‘Well, actually, I think…’
Men are nearly three times as likely to interrupt a woman than another man.
The New York Times called men interrupting women “a universal phenomenon.” And the kicker is when a man parrots the same idea as the woman he interrupted, receiving all the credit for it.
A complaint I hear from female employees it that when they share an idea or comment, everyone ignores it. The male in the room then says it and everyone thinks it’s the greatest idea.
What to do instead: Wait for the person to finish their thought. And if you like their idea, give them credit.
‘Why do you wear that?’
Those who are Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, or another religion and choose to wear religious head coverings or jewelry, often receive overly-intrusive questions at work. After 2015 in California, a company could not require that an employee NOT wear religious based clothing, head coverings or jewelry.
If you want to learn more about that religion, google it. An employee shouldn’t have to explain their religion when they are just trying to do their job.
Muslim women who wear a hijab, for instance, often say that people ask them if someone is “forcing” them to wear a hijab. They are asked if wearing a hijab helps them streamline the process of preparing to come to work. The question is way too personal and can make a person feel uncomfortable, and singled out due to their religion.
“Don’t stare. Don’t judge. Teach others. Know that I’m not somebody to be saved,” wrote an anonymous hijab-wearing woman in the publication Everyday Feminism. “Treat me as you would treat anyone else.”
What to do instead: Say nothing. If you’re curious about why religious people choose to wear certain articles of clothing, read articles or books by those who do it. Don’t go around asking random colleagues about their life choices.