14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist
Think before you speak. That's the best way to avoid a microaggression.

To avoid a toxic workplace culture, it’s important to know which phrases and actions can make employees from different backgrounds or identities feel uncomfortable and targeted. Not meaning to give offence does not excuse this behaviour – especially if you keep repeating it.

With that in mind, here are 14 seemingly innocent phrases to avoid (and what to say instead.)

Microaggressions are unconscious expressions of racism or sexism. They come out in seemingly innocuous comments by people who might have the best of intentions.

From telling a new female worker that she “looks like a student” to asking a black colleague about her natural hair, microaggressions often exist in the workplace. And they can make a workplace feel unsafe.

“Because microaggressions are often communicated through language, it is very important to pay attention to how we talk, especially in the workplace and other social institutions like classrooms, courtrooms, and so on,”Christine Mallinson, professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explained.

Because microaggressions are so subtle, it’s often hard to know if you’re committing one or if you’re on the receiving end.

“One thing is that they are in a sense ambiguous, so that the recipient is apt to feel vaguely insulted, but since the words look and sound complimentary, on the surface (they’re most often positive), she can’t rightly feel insulted and doesn’t know how to respond,” Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, told Business Insider.

Here are some of the most common microaggressions:

‘You’re so articulate’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

“When a white colleague tells a colleague of colour ‘You’re so articulate’ or ‘You speak so well,’ the remark suggests that they assumed the person in question would be less articulate – and are surprised to find out they aren’t,” Mallinson told Business Insider.

“We (a white-dominant society) expect black folks to be less competent,” wrote A. Gordon in The Root. “And, 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.”

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 Elliot Wake know that while these people have good intentions, it’s an offensive comment that implies being trans isn’t desirable.

“(T)hey assume if I’m trans, my ultimate goal must be to look as much like a binary cis male as possible – and that trans masculine folk who don’t look like cis men have somehow failed that unstated goal,” Wake told Bustle.

It indicates that the speaker feels looking as close as possible to cisgender(those who identify with the gender they were born with) should be what trans people aim for.

“Trans women can be beautiful in our own way without being judged on ridiculous cis beauty standards,” Katelyn Burns told Bustle.

What to do instead: Say nothing.

‘Oh, sorry, wrong person’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist
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.

“When I started grad school, the intro class was taught by two white women and I was one of two Mexican-Americans in the cohort,” one Buzzfeed reader shared. “They constantly called me Maria, the other girl’s name. My name is Alejandra and we look nothing alike.”

What to say instead: Learn your coworkers’ names. It’s a pretty basic concept.

‘Oh, you’re gay? You should meet my friend Ann. She’s gay, too!’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

Adi Barreto wrote for The Muse about a few issues she’s faced in the workplace as a queer woman in tech.

One of the things she’s encountered: that classic suggestion that many well-intentioned straight people pull out for LGBTQ friends and family – offering to set them up with another LGBTQ person they know.

“Just because two people you know have one thing in common, doesn’t mean they’d be a match,” Barreto wrote. “Yes, there are fewer people we can date, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have standards in personality type, values, and everything else you care about, too.”

Barreto added that this would be like setting up a straight coworker with a random straight person you know of the opposite gender – just because they happen to both have the same sexual orientation.

What to do instead: Say nothing. If your coworker of any sexual orientation wants your help meeting new people, they will ask you.

‘My [female] boss is crazy’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

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,'” Mallinson told Business Insider. “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 colleague’s viewpoint rather than ascribing her actions as illogical. If you still don’t agree, you could say: “I don’t understand her perspective on this” – then ask her for her insights.

‘Where are you actually from?’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

Asking someone about their ethnic heritage appears to just be a way to get to know someone.

But for Asians and other ethnicities, the question gets tiresome, wrote journalist Tanzina Vega in CNN.

“The next time you want to inquire about someone’s race, ethnicity or national origin, ask yourself: Why do I want to know?” Vega wrote. “Or better yet, rather than asking anyone ‘where are you really from?’ try listening – or letting that person ask you a question – instead.”

Receiving that question again and again can imply that a person isn’t really from this country or doesn’t truly belong here, just because of their appearance.

“The wrong here is that the question presupposes that being a person of colour is inconsistent with being [a local],” Dr. Ashley Lauren Pennington told Business Insider.

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 [a disability] is so inspiring’

“Too often do we forget that people with disabilities, too, have to deal with microaggressions on the regular,” wrote Wendy Lu, who has a tracheostomy tube, on Bustle. “They can take place in everyday conversations, making them hard to call out unless you want to be looked down upon for making a big deal out of ‘nothing.'”

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 worldwhere we don’t have such low expectationsof disabled peoplethat 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.

What to do instead: Say nothing.

‘Your name is so hard to pronounce’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

“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 about,” Mallinson told Business Insider.

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’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

Kieran Snyder, now CEO of Textio, told Fast Company about one of her first experiences with microaggressions as a Microsoft employee. She was going to a company lecture on maths.

“I walked over a few minutes early, and in the room two men were already seated,” Snyder said.

According to Snyder, one of the men saw her and quickly asked if she was looking for a talk on design that was being held nearby. He assumed that, as a woman, Snyder would not be interested or able to go to a maths talk.

It appears to just be a helpful suggestion, but it communicates that it’s impossible or unlikely that a woman couldn’t be an engineer.

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?’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

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 grey-haired colleague’s texting habits seems innocent, age discrimination is a serious problem in many workplaces. In the video games industry, 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.

Age Discrimination Is A Problem For Games Developers

Making a living as a games developer is challenging -- but the strange thing is that it becomes more challenging the longer you do it. Mark over at Kotaku has a great and detailed examination of the problem of ageism in the games industry.

Read more

‘Are you an intern? You look so young!’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist

“By complementing a woman on her appearance, in a professional setting, you are reinforcing sexist beliefs about women’s worth – that first and foremost, women must be attractive, and this is a primary function of their social role,” Pennington told Business Insider.

“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 it may subtly undermine her authority on the job,” Mallinson told Business Insider.

Remarking on someone’s apparent 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?’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist
Receiving comments about one’s natural hair is a frequent struggle for African women in particular. Black women’s textured hair is often seen as “less professional” than smooth hair, according to the Perception Institute.

“My cubicle partner is black and has natural hair,” an anonymous reader wrote to Buzzfeed. “She has a pretty big afro, and at least once a week someone asks me if I think her hair is unprofessional, if it violates the dress code, or if it distracts me. No, Kathy. Her hair does not make me feel anything. You, however, leaving your desk and interrupting my work to try and start s–t makes me feel things.”

For black women, the bias against natural hair results in higher levels of anxiety about their appearance. One in five black women in the US 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…’

14 ‘Innocent’ Workplace Habits That Are Racist, Sexist Or Ageist
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.

“I can’t even count the number of times I’ve witnessed a woman being interrupted and talked over by a man, only to hear him later repeat the same ideas she was trying to put forward,” Grace Ellis told the Times. “I’d say I see this happen … two to three times a week? At least?”

Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing, alliances, and programs for the Anita Borg Institute, also said this is one of the biggest workplace microaggressions she hears about.

“Another thing we hear a lot is when they share an idea or comment and everyone ignores it, then the male in the room says it and everyone thinks it’s the greatest thing,” Ames told Fast Company.

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 might get overly-probing questions at work.

In reality, that one person isn’t a representative of their entire religion. If you want to learn more about that religion, you shouldn’t ask people while they’re just trying to do their job.

Muslim women who wear a hijab, for instance, often say that people ask them “if they’re bald underneath” or if someone is “forcing” them to wear a hijab.

“Don’t stare. Don’t judge. Teach others. Know that I’m not somebody to be saved,” wrote an anonymous hijab-wearing woman in Everyday Feminism. “Treat me as you would treat anyone else. That’s all you need.”

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.


    • Yeah, it’s bullshit that in this day and age some people still don’t know this stuff, especially the young ones. They’re pretty basic rules of human interaction: Don’t be a condescending arse, don’t assume someone’s qualified or not based on their race or gender, don’t talk about people’s bodies and cultural clothing like they’re novelty items, and achieve it all through the simple act of not arrogantly assuming you’re perfect and bias-free. And instead of letting your ignorance drive you to make coworkers act like your cultural educators, just Google it (hell, Bing it if that floats your boat).

      How on Earth do folks still not get this?

      • While I agree that people should be more accepting of others some of the stuff in the article is BS.

        Case in point, the bit about setting up a gay person with a gay friend. They say you wouldn’t set up a straight person with another straight friend. YES you would. People do that all the damned time. Friends like to see friends happy. “Hey you’re single and I know another wonderful single person you might like”.

        And this quote to me sums up why the article is BS.

        Because microaggressions are so subtle, it’s often hard to know if you’re committing one or if you’re on the receiving end.

        Bolded for emphasis. Or maybe there is NO micro-aggression and the people are just making innocent comments. Honestly, for it to be “aggression” (micro or not) there needs to be intent and malice.

        Half the things in this article seem to be people actively trying to be offended by stuff someone says.

        • The difference between “Hey you’re single and I know another wonderful single person you might like” and “hey you’re gay and I know another gay person you may like” is that usually the person saying it is acting on the single common factor that both people are gay, while with straight singles it’ll be like “oh you both like tennis”. We know other gay people exist, that doesn’t mean we want to be set up on dates with every other gay person on the planet.

          Which really cycles back to the point of the article: there are a lot of seemingly minor things that marginalised or minority groups have to hear or deal with every day that just get so exhausting, hence the story highlighting some of them for those who want to be better allies 🙂

          • You really don’t deal with a lot of people do you? It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s subtle, where both parties are invited to the same event and “let’s see what happens”. Sometimes it’s overt “hey you’d like my friend they’re single” setups.

            @Hayley Williams: How is saying “you both like tennis” any better? It’s a single lousy point of commonality that’s no better (or worse) than sexual preference, or taste in music or love of mexican cooking.

            Anyway, the thing about set ups, especially as referenced in the article are they’re not forced. “Hey I have a (gay) friend you might like” doesn’t mean you have to go on a date with them. It’s an opportunity to fish for more information – what do they like, are they hot, are they into reggae/jazz/heavy metal. And *maybe* take it further.

            In the age of tinder and grindr I find it mind-boggling that the possibility of setting up two friends on a date is considered offensive.

          • Again, the issue is ‘coworkers’.

            I work in HR. If someone made a complaint about a coworker trying to set them up with someone without invitation, I’d absolutely caution them. It’s not appropriate workplace behaviour.

          • So if someone asks (invites) you to set them up with someone, that doesn’t put you in an awkward spot?

          • Not at all. Because it’s invited behaviour, the person who has asked isn’t likely to make a complaint, so it’s not going to be an issue.

          • So if a co-worker asks me to, in their words, “could you set me up with … from accounting”, that’s not a problem. Seems to me its a problem, the other person didn’t ask for it.

          • Oh yeah specifying another person in the workplace is a bad idea. But saying ‘hey do you know anyone you could set me up with’ would be fine.

          • Here’s the thing, you seem to be making an assumption that the scenario is like this:

            Random coworker A tried to set up random coworker B with their friend. A & B don’t know or really associate with each other.

            That’s not how it goes, 99% of the time when someone is wanting to setup a coworker they are at least acquaintances and more likely friends. We’re not talking situations where people who barely know each other are setting people up on dates. We’re talking about people who’ve known each other for months if not years. People who spend more time together than most married couples.

            Now, in your complaint example. I can’t imagine anyone I’ve ever worked with making a complaint like that, or making one myself. For that to happen either the person complaining is incredibly thin skinned and intolerant themselves, or the person doing the setting up is incredibly pushy and obnoxious about it.

            Normal scenario:

            A: “Hey you should go out with X they’re nice and you’d like them.”

            B: “No thanks. Not interested. ”

            A: “Ok. Fair enough.”

            Case over, no need to speak with HR.

            It’s only a problem if either party makes it a problem. If A keeps trying to set B up, then the next step is for B to say “Look I don’t really want to be set up with anyone”. It’s only if A continues trying to set B up that it should be a problem for HR (and rightly so).

          • Yeah here’s the thing, there are plenty of people who make the assumption they have a good enough relationship with their workmate to act a certain way, and end up crossing a line. It happens enough to keep me extremely busy.

            From my experience, seeing the types of complaints that come in from people against other people who would assume they’re ‘good friends’ only to cross the unknown line, just don’t do that stuff with work people at work, unless invited.

          • @finaldelerium – Kudos to handling that HR role. If I have people coming to me filing a complaint that a coworker tried to suggest a date with someone else “without invitation” I would probably tell them to bugga off back to their office and read a book on growing up.

  • As most of the suggestions recommend saying nothing and I am a quiet and reserved person will people assume I am racist, sexist or offensive because I don’t say much?

      • Totally agree with that Hayley, however I do not see much above in those points that were intentionally antagonistic, or insulting or ill intentioned.

        Sure some of the examples were common sense and one would word it differently, that mostly comes with maturity (age) and experience I think. The older you get (most of us anyway) learn how to choose words and phrase things a bit better. There are a lot more “tender points” these days.

        That said, perhaps those on the receiving end of the above examples should not be so sensitive and judgemental. That can also show their insecurities which others saying whatever they do innocently should not have to wear. You can tell if someone is making a snide remark, or just asking a question as a matter perhaps of awkwardly trying to break the ice and open up dialogue. Cutting them a bit of slack is not a bad thing.

  • Some of these are common sense, some of them can be flipped and then considered wrong.

    Assuming older people are down with current memes and trends if discriminating.

    Ignoring peoples cultural background is discriminating.

    Not correcting mistakes of co-workers is wrong.

    • If current memes are trends relate to the work you do then it’s safe to assume that the older people in the office do understand them.

      I don’t think the article is suggesting that we ignore other people’s cultural background, but rather that we refrain from making the assumption that they are not from our country because of how they look. I always ask people where they are from because I’m genuinely interested about them and about the world, however I am careful to phrase it in a way that makes it clear I’m asking about where they are from (not where there parents are from), that I’m not making any assumptions about their nationality (unless it is clear from their accent) and that I’m genuinely interested in learning about them and any shared experiences, family links etc. (rather than give them a label or put them in a box). Similarly, I will ask about cultural heritage if it relates to somewhere I’ve travelled to, plan to travel to, have a special interest in or a family link to (as the person has often travelled there or still has family based there) but I usually wait for them to bring it up.

      The article doesn’t talk about correcting anyone (which is fine to do, but do it tactfully!). You might be referring to the point about the interrupting? If so, it’s rude to interrupt regardless of whether you think someone is mistaken or not. There’s nothing worse than having someone cut you off mid-sentence after having made a mistaken assumption about what you are trying to say. To understand the point someone is making, you need to listen to it in full. If you need to correct them on something then wait until they are done.

  • So is it ok to say to someone that is not black that they are articulate. It is sort of a weird thing to say to anyone that they are articulate, and I mean actually use the word “articulate”.

    Asking where someone is “really from”, again this is rather loaded. But “did you grow up in Australia, have you been living here very long?”, are not nearly as loaded. Sure you risk people feeling that they are noticeably different in some way to yourself but it is not an aggression, its actually showing interest in a person. It’s not subtle, don’t ask if you are not truly interested.

    Yeah I would steer away from asking about hair. I said to a colleague/friend, “I like what you’ve done to your hair”, and got the angry response, “I got caught in the rain”.

    Crazy is not bad, many subordinates feel their boss is crazy at some time or other. On the scale of things a crazy boss could also be a good boss, certainly better than an ahole boss. If you can’t say your boss is crazy you aren’t left with much to express your displeasure.

    Generally the article is pretty offensive, suggesting you should not talk to people. The language and situations are pretty loaded, as she explains. Most of these topics could be breached or discussed in much nicer ways. The article is actually full of microaggressions towards the reader, making assumptions about motives and presuming her impolite language will be used by her readership “innocently”.

    The author is American, so it needs to be read in that context. i.e. probably best ignored.

    And if you ramble on, expect to get interrupted at some point.

    • Totally agree!
      “The article is actually full of microaggressions towards the reader, making assumptions about motives,”

      Only a small subset of these are actually microaggressions, e.g. Transgender appearance, pronouncing names, assume roles, ageism.
      Many of the other situations can result from genuine interest in the other person and be the start of friendship.

  • I see a lot of eye-rolling here, but it’s interesting how relevant some of them are, in Australia.

    A few years back at a work social function, I remember talking to a woman from a different business unit, and hitting it off. At one point she had her phone out, and the background image on it (better known as a ‘wallpaper’) was pretty striking, so I asked: “Oh hey, what’s your background?”

    She interpreted this as a question about her ethnic background, and the shift in her body language and facial expression was obvious. She was used to being asked this, and clearly wasn’t a fan.

    I quickly corrected the misunderstanding, interrupting to apologize, “Sorry, I meant your phone background…” gesturing toward the device, which brightened her mood considerably, and we continued talking happily about that.

    But in that brief moment she was clearly and visibly bored, irritated, and disappointed in what she thought might be questioning around her heritage. I can only assume it happens a lot and is loaded with those doubts, and carries that implication that you’re somehow ‘other’.

    This shit doesn’t come outta nowhere. Something has caused that reaction to develop, over time. Probably an aggregate of ‘innocent’ drip-by-drip erosion of patience.

    It’s always worthwhile just considering what exactly it is you’re asking. We had a new team member come on board, and when it came to asking, “What’s your background, where did you come from?” It’d be easy for that to be interpreted as, “Which country? Which is noteworthy because it’s not ‘default Australian,’ which I am implying means ‘white’ like me.”

    It doesn’t hurt at all to add the word, ‘industry’ before ‘background’, and elaborate, “Did you come from within the department?” Because where someone came from in terms of organizations and industry IS relevant.

    • Honestly, I don’t see asking about someone’s background (as in where they come from) to be offensive unless you make it so. We had a couple Indian co-workers in my team but one came from India and the other (as it turned out) Fiji. There was nothing racist intended when we asked them where they were from. People were genuinely curious and interested in knowing what it was like and what the differences were like between Fiji, India and Australia.

      How do you learn about other cultures and countries if you don’t ask questions about them? Asking politely is a way to learn what limits are and what is and isn’t offensive

      Now if someone had said “Ugh you come from India” or “So life must be much better now you’re here instead of India” that would have been horrible and they should be raked over the coals.

      • I think a big part of it comes from the fact that these days, with immigration having been stepped up a bit for a while now, the answer to, “Where do you come from?” is often something like, “Townsville.” If you’re asking because of appearance instead of say, a really fucking heavy accent or whatever, it’s another implication that again: it’s not the ‘default’ for someone to look, say, Asian in Australia – it’s unusual, they must come from somewhere else. They’re ‘other’, basically. Benign individually, but I assume the aggregate must start to really wear folks down, always being taken as coming from somewhere that isn’t their home.

        It’s also a matter of propriety – learning earnestly about other cultures and countries with an open mind is fantastic! But there’s a time and a place, and a big part of that is less about what the person asking the question feels like talking about, and more what the person asked feels like – no-one’s psychic, communication has always been tricky since the dawn of time, but there’s some value in hedging your bets til you feel you can accurately read the room.

        And having it come up as a factor behind someone’s perspective on a common subject often makes people feel more comfortable than making the origin of their perspective the subject itself. We’ve got a pretty damn diverse crew in our team. Vegetarians, vegans, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, folks from mainland China, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Taiwan… and the random discussions about shared activities, diets, holidays, home life routines, shared housework roles, etc, allow the folks who do want to share their cultural perspectives the opportunity to share as much or as little about how the common subject relates to their origin as they like, when they feel comfortable with volunteering it, as opposed to their culture being the subject. I guess it’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve learned a lot more in breadth about their other cultures this way than any more… direct or specific conversation-making in the past.

        Of course not all teams interact the same way, and I’m sure when the interest expressed is obviously sincere and comfort levels are good, people will cheerfully exchange all the info they’re proud of all damn day. It’s gotta be about the environment you’re in and how folks perceive their culture as being valued in that environment.

        Feelings are tricky, which is why I don’t see anything wrong with erring on the side of careful neutrality.

        • I agree with you. I wouldn’t ask someone “where are you from” the first time I met them. That to me is rude, or at least can be. I just meant that I don’t see it as bad asking where someone is from in general.

          I reckon the best way to dispel a lot of the stereo types is to talk with people about them.

      • I think the problem is that well-intending questions like yours, sound too much like questions that outright assume that a person is foreign based on looks. And as transient said, while those questions themselves are pretty harmless on their own, it’s their slow accretion that serves to make people feel like they won’t ever be seen different than an “other”.

        That’s why the article suggests considering what is exactly what you’re asking and making an effort to word the question in ways that reflect your intentions. If you’re a person who enjoys learning about different cultures, you could, for example, start talking about traveling. If the person in question hails from overseas, it is likely that they mention it as some point… and if they don’t, well they either are natively Australians or they just don’t like to talk about their home countries for whatever reason; either way, social mishap averted! Just don’t make it too overt like “hey, I visited India two years ago!”, if you suspect that they are Indian or something like that.

      • I agree that its a tricky thing to ask, and I always mentally draw a breath and ask myself ‘have we been talking long enough and you know I am interested in you before asking anything along these lines. It’s not even always about being offended, its also about “Oh I have to go through all this explanation again, it’s boring”. I lived overseas for a long time, sometimes I volunteer this because of the conversation, but it is surprising how often I get asked if I was born overseas by people who weren’t born here and by people who were.

        I hope we can tell the difference between uncomfortable and bored. ‘Pushing’ it is not necessarily an aggression. If you ask someone where they come from and they say USA with some boredom, asking which part of the US shows interest, volunteering that you spent a lot of time in one part of the country implies it will not be an interogation. It’s a bit like asking someone you just met what they do for a living. Most normal people don’t like getting that question asked of them. It’s boring, you probably wouldn’t understand my field, we are not going to work together so why ask that, it just reeks of awkwardness. If you asked them because they seem particularly knowledgable about what you are talking about then it has context.

        Asking someone out of the blue where they were born without any reason is not the best conversation starter. Besides if you spend just a little time with someone it will sort of come up.

        It’s not aggressive or offensive to ask some of the questions posed in the article if there is a friendship, mutual respect or a damn good reason.

        Re-read the phrases the author has used, a lot of them are plain stupid and aggressive. Ís that your real hair? Where do you come from anyway? Do you even know what Snapchat is? Why do you wear that? The way you’ve overcome [a disability] is so inspiring? “if they’re bald underneath” I think you’re in the wrong room — this is the programmers’ meeting. Seriously, do you know anyone that you respect that speaks like that? None of them could be delivered with a tone that is respectful or innocent, they are loaded.

        But don’t be afraid you can ask things in a nice way, if there is a reason, if you have a relationship. You can even ask if you can ask. I once confided with a disabled friend that I felt unsure about offering help to disabled people who seemed to be coping but with difficulty. She said an offer of help is always nice. It is easy to overcompensate perceived sensitivities and actually isolate people.

        • It’s not aggressive or offensive to ask some of the questions posed in the article if there is a friendship, mutual respect or a damn good reason.

          This is what I was getting at. I felt like the article was just suggesting an outright “ban” on all the questions, rather than looking at them in context. Which seems to be an increasing problem with political correctness as time goes by.

          And for the record, I don’t disagree with all the issues raised in the article, just some of them.

    • Totally. My partner, who is visibly brown, gets asked this all the time. She hates it. Don’t do it, unless you want to make someone feel like you think they’re a foreigner in their own country.

    • Perhaps we need to change that conversation so it isn’t considered exclusionary.
      I’m white Australian, but I too have an ethnic background, as I imagine almost all white Australians do.
      We are such an introduced group from a range of ethnicities, maybe it needs to be okay to ask this of anybody.

  • “According to Snyder, one of the men saw her and quickly asked if she was looking for a talk on design that was being held nearby. He assumed that, as a woman, Snyder would not be interested or able to go to a maths talk.”

    Or maybe the woman should have considered that the guys had never seen her in the lectures before – as she was new an all – and was being helpful in suggesting that she might be in the wrong lecture.

    People who want to be offended always will find a way to be. That passage lost me at “microaggression”.

    • But why would be anybody’s first assumption that any given person (if truly there’s no subconscious prejudice) is in the wrong place? Especially if we are talking about spaces open to the public which are expected to receive visitors?

      • People are creatures of habit. They may assume – incorrectly at times – that because there is a new face, of any gender, there is some confusion on the new person’s part and they have found the wrong room. It is because of the repetition of seeing the same faces in the room, and when there is a new face, there is mild confusion by the question asker.

        Your failure to see that may be incorrectly construed as micro-arrgression toward me. How dare I not be intelligent enough to understand the point of the passage you so elegantly understood?

        I mean, maybe they are on the autism spectrum, or simply don’t have the emotional IQ as you and were attempting to be genuinely helpful. Have you ever stopped to think of that?

        So the regulars make an innocent, yet possibly incorrect statement or they phrase a question that could have been better phrased and all of a sudden they are terrible people?

        It seems from your response that you have never been caught off guard, never made an innocent paux pas.

        I realise there are times when people are genuinely offended with due right, but as I said previously, if you look hard enough, you can always find a way to be offended. You csan choose to live a life open to being offended. Yo can choose to let it slide and get on with what you are doing.

        • You may be right that things need to be considered case by case. But whenever there’s precedent for likelihood, could you be blamed if you forged assumptions on said likelihood up until the point when you knew better?

          I mean, I’m sure that you are not going to try to argue that sexism doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t have an extensively documented history of incidents exactly like the discussed one or worse. So let us try to build a logical case departing from this: There are two options–the guys in question were consciously or subconsciously being sexist (there’s an important difference in there, but at this level of the argument we only want to know about the existence of sexism), or they were not.

          Now let us get into the shoes of the woman: If the guys were being sexist, her calling them out exposes such sexism and contributes to creating a world where it doesn’t exist. She could choose not to get offended for her own peace of mind, but that would only allow the world to continue being such that the burden of keeping the peace sits with the victims. If the guys were not being sexist and she called them out, well a lesson was learned by everybody, depending on the exact nature of what caused the guys’ reaction. (As you say, one could think of many; and yet, historically, any of those are more unlikely than sexism,)

          • I’m suprised you think micro – aggression is even in the same ball park as sexism. I do actually find that inflammatory and offensive.
            You have now just associated what I was talking about with sexism. That may not be your intention but that is clearly what you have now done.

            I think you need to go back and re-read my posts without your bias hat on.

          • Uh? I don’t know if you think I’m talking about what you’ve written but my reference to sexism is regarding the case in question. It is a micro-aggression because it’s sexist (potentially, as I explained). I point your attention to the title of the article.

      • We actually don’t know why the male (does it matter? Is that sexist?) person asked the person walking into the room if they were looking for the design lecture.
        Your need to ask the person that.
        However, it IS assumed the reason is because the other person was female, therefore they should be in design.
        However, the reason is an assumption and without asking the person we don’t actually know if this is a (micro) sexist behaviour or not.

        • Well, we assume it for two reasons:

          -First, as I already pointed out, it’s a public space purposefully open to visitors. Telling a stranger who just walked in to leave because they must be in the wrong place raises a reasonable suspicion of it being a prejudiced response (since they had nothing else to reach a conclusion other than the information glanced with one look at the person in question).

          -Second, there’s a long and well-documented history of men commanding, suggesting, expecting, requesting and/or demanding that women stay away from academic, political, professional, etc conversations and environments because they are believed to lack the intellect, disposition or interest necessary, or simply that “they don’t belong”.

          So I’d say that it’s a pretty safe assumption. Could it not be mistaken? For sure; as you say, the only way to make sure in this particular case is by interrogating the people in question. Regardless, whether this one case is sexist or not doesn’t take away from the fact that this kind of sexism happens all the time, which is precisely what makes it likely.

      • I saw the point. I just don’t agree with it. I choose to look at the positive side of life. I don’t look for micro aggression. I’m just waiting for nano aggression to make the mainstream.

        Nano aggregations coming to a place near you soon – you heard it hear first.

    • Unless she was looking confused & flustered, or maybe if she was carrying a couple big books obviously marked “Design 101” why would you assume they’re in the wrong place? Without some valid reason to assume she was in the wrong place I think that was offensive.

  • Everyone just needs to harden up. I get questioned on my name all the time, no it’s not Anglo, yes I was born here, I’m first gen aussie, yes, blah blah blah. People just want to know sometimes. I get extremely offended by people preaching their religion/religious values at work, but if I were to display my offence at them, they would have a more valid reason to be offended in the eyes of our current democracy. Mannerisms of people from certain cultures also drive me up the wall, and no matter how rude they are, if I was to bring it up I would be labelled racist.

    I guess the trick is, if you’re part of the majority, don’t offend the minorities, because they WILL kick up a stink over it.

    • The title suggests the goal of this article was to point out impolite language, which may not have been intended as such, but through clumsiness or lack of appreciation of how it could be misunderstood, i.e. innocently. Sadly not.

      Aggression is an overt act. If you bump someone because you weren’t looking where you were going that is not aggression. You can call it clumsy, stupid, careless, negligent and indeed you may well be liable for the consequences. If you were the recipient of said bump, and because you were also not looking where you were going, assumed it was intentional and therefore an aggression, you would be wrong as well as careless.

      Innocence does not mean you are not culpable, and so a story about innocent (through lack of knowledge or considered thought) impoliteness might be instructive. Labelling innocent actions as aggressions, microaggressions on the edge of detectability is patently misguided. Along with advice to not ask questions of people that you perceive as different to yourself, is really mixed up.

    • Yeah well put. See, that’s why the “stink” is kicked. Because unfortunately there are some people who cannot be convinced by appeals to their humanity, empathy, courtesy, etc. Such people care principally about themselves so calling them out gives them an incentive they can work with (“don’t say it, it will be annoying to deal with the lash-back”). In the end, one way or another, a more inclusive and respectful society is created!

      And if you think that it’s unfair that you have to feel as though you cannot complain about their little cultural quirks that drive you up the wall, consider that your little cultural quirks that drive other people up the wall are not being attacked either. Or do you think we don’t have any quirks of that sort?

  • Actually, I want to be the first to use the term nanoaggression, and I hope anyone who subsequently uses this term attributes it to me.

    Nanoaggressions are subconscious thoughts of racism or sexism. They don’t come out in any immediately detectable way, but exist within people who might otherwise have the best of intentions, by avoiding asking questions, making any statement to or even being in the vicinity of people, that they either consciously or subconsciously detect as being in some way different to themselves, lest it offend them. It is extremely difficult to differentiate the difference between someone being nanoaggressive and simply doing nothing. However, as the recipient of such microaggression cannot tell the difference there is essentially no difference in the detrimental effects to the recipient as offence is rendered in either case. This can lead to someone being offended by someone actually doing nothing, which is perfectly reasonable because unless someone is actively committing a larger aggression such as a microaggression, it is quite possible that they are committing a nanoaggression. Hence if someone accuses another of a nanoaggression, they themselves are not committing a nanoaggression, because the accusation in itself is of a higher form of aggression. A similar concept to it being difficult to call someone a racist or sexist after they have called you one, so its very important to get in first with your accusation.

    An example of a nanoaggression might be not buying flowers for your female friend because you think females like flowers, or not buying beer for a male friend because you think they might want them. Even if you didn’t use this reasoning to avoid being prejudicial, the result is the same, and the, in this case non-recipient, may be upset by the nanoaggression.

    The concept of the nanoaggression is not entirely novel, as it builds on the concept of the microaggression espoused by Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

  • The title suggests the goal of this article was to point out impolite language, which may not have been intended as such, but through clumsiness or lack of appreciation of how it could be misunderstood, i.e. innocently. Sadly not.

    If one takes each of the quoted statements and questions, one could probably think of better language. However, ignore the given context and one could also probably imagine a context with people who know each other well where this language (or something similar but maybe a little less clumsy) would be unlikely to cause offence. So we have a statement or question, that may be clumsy or even appear innocent, until the author puts it in the worst possible context. The author concludes in some instances even where there were possibly/likely good intentions and that even if the receiver thought that was the case, that there was aggression.

    Aggression is an overt act. If you bump someone because you weren’t looking where you were going that is not aggression. You can call it clumsy, stupid, careless, negligent and indeed you may well be liable for the consequences. If you were the recipient of said bump, and because you were also not looking where you were going, assumed it was intentional and therefore an aggression, you would be wrong as well as careless.

    Innocence does not mean you are not culpable, and so a story about innocent (through lack of knowledge or considered thought) impoliteness might be instructive. Labelling innocent actions as aggressions, microaggressions, or nanoaggression on the edge of detectability is patently misguided. Along with advice to not ask questions of people that you perceive as different to yourself, this has created a nice little discussion by people who are offended by the author’s suggestions and those that can recognise impoliteness.

    Further the author has concluded that these microaggressions are unconcious expressions of racism and sexism. So these are not innocent statements or questions at all, but emanate from racists and sexists.

    Might I humbly suggest with all meekness and that this could possibly be a teeny weeny bit of an aggressive stance. As it was presumable done after much consideration and passing editorial controls, probably doesn’t qualify as a microaggression. Nevertheless the author has probably commited some sort of microaggressions because until she reads the comments could not possibly know how offended they would be at the suggestion that their statements and questions which they make innocently are really manifestions of racists and sexists.

    • I know you went through the trouble of writing these long and super clever pieces of satire and it’s disappointing that they didn’t draw out more controversy, but you don’t have to repost them in the same thread. It’s not like people could miss them when they’re longer than a screen scroll.

      So I guess I’m just letting you know that you have been seen; your effort is acknowledged. It’s just that they are maybe not as provocative as you expected? They’re a bit too hyperbolic and patronising, and must be said, a bit meandering. Remember, satire is written for the people who already agree with you, so trying too hard to mimic the tone and language of the thing you’re mocking may make those people subconsciously check out while not really fooling the people being criticised. Also, in your effort to take every point you’re mocking to its absolute extreme, you end making the piece unnecessarily overlong. Hope this helps!

      • If you edit just one misspelt word, it sometimes gets held for moderation and the post disappears, which sometimes takes weeks. Yes there should be a delete option, but that’s a problem I guess if other people comment on the post. I can also agree with most of your comments about length and quality of satire (I think you were refering to another post not this particular one as this one is merely sarcastic at the end). Except that good satire is not just for people who agree with you. You are probably right in saying that my post was not good satire. I acknowledge the good intentions, advice and the manner in which you give it.

        It was not meant to be provocative, but in places definitely mocking. I was pointing out that a lot of the negative reactions to the story, i.e. those that think some points are wrong, are a consequence of a mislabeling of what are often innocent, clumsy or well intentioned acts or comments as aggressive and motivated by sexism or racism. In a story about clumsy language, it is not helpful to state that people with good intentions are aggressors and subconciously racists and sexist. Without this there would be no need to defend their curiosity or good intentions, but simply promote better understanding and more empathy, which was probably the original motivation of the story.

  • Having lived on several continents, I appreciate that most people are well-intentioned and in asking about your background in a non-accusatory way are simply negotiating a basis for conversation around all sorts of issues of language difference, cultural expectation and momentary clumsiness.
    When all of this is locked down and people become too nervous to converse, then walls come up and micro-aggressions are replaced with macro-aggressions.
    The cultural norm is many societies is to ask questions that might be seen as intrusive here. So of we tell people not to act like their cultural norm, aren’t we being the aggressor?

    • I agree. Until I moved to Australia I had never lived in a country longer than 5 years. I was born in Africa and have been all over Africa, Europe, The Middle East and now Australia (which I call home). I get asked where I am from all the time, in fact most people who meet me and engage with me will ask where I am from because I have no defined accent as such. I don’t have any problem with this and I have met so many people, developed so many friendships, and had lots of interesting conversations because people have asked me, or I have asked them where they are from. I am genuinely interested in what town/city/country you are from, what your heritage is, how you got here and what your story is. I really feel sorry for generations to come as they become more and more disconnected, paralysed by technology addictions and a fear of offending people.

  • This would have to be of the dumbest PC articles i have read.

    Basically, dont talk to anyone under the age of 25, because they are far too precious.

    The absolute worst offenders are the politically correct. They are ageist, racist, and sexist.

      • The PC are sexist, racist, and ageist.
        White is bad.
        Men are bad.
        White men are very bad.
        Old white men are the devil.

        Millennials have proven by their actions that they are precious. Demanding safe areas, and trigger words, to protect them from different views. Thats not ageist. Its what they are.

        This article is just another example of the pathetic world of the politically correct.

        • All good. Not sure how being politically correct equates to being sexist, racist or ageist – surely by definition it’s the antithesis of all those things? – but again, all good. You do you mate.

          To be honest I get tired of political correctness too sometimes – ‘is this forced rephrasing really necessary?’ kind of thing – but it’s never been something that’s directly affected me, so I just do it anyway. Maybe it makes someone else’s life a little easier, maybe it does nothing at all, but it costs me nothing so I’m fine with it. And if it does actually end up making someone else’s life a little easier? even someone I don’t know from a bar of soap? then yeah, it’s worth it to me. Political correctness isn’t pathetic, it’s empathetic.

          If you expect the worst from people, that’s all you’ll ever see in them.

  • There’s some useful stuff in here, but that first point in particular is kind of weird. Firstly, I’m not going to shy away from complimenting someone’s eloquence because of the colour of their skin. The problem is the surprised tone, not the compliment itself. And to be completely honest, that tone is something that anyone could get offended by, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. (“oh, you look good in that top” – is a perfectly reasonable compliment, but when you say it in a surprised way? not so much).

    Onto the main event: “We (a white-dominant society) expect black folks to be less competent….,” – you fkn what?! is this challenging or perpetuating stereotypes?

    “And, speaking as a white person,” – do you not see the irony in writing a massive piece about micro aggressions in the workplace, only to get your quotes on race from a white dude?

    Most of these things are just silly things to say in a workplace environment generally. e.g. talking about someone’s physical appearance? Just…just don’t do that at work at all! (unless you know the compliment’s recipient well enough). Common sense people.

    I get the point though. People have diverse backgrounds, and phrases that seem benign to me may have some offensive quality to another person. I choose my language carefully in order to try and ensure I don’t cause offense to anyone. But I don’t get it right all the time, and if I’m not affected by something directly – through privilege or ignorance – it’s almost certainly harder for me to recognise when something I’m saying is unintentionally offensive to someone with a different background to me.

    Maybe that’s the important point to be making though. I feel like language is too contextual for any blanket rules like this to really be useful. Just be mindful of who you’re speaking to, and where you’re speaking from, and you’ll probably do just fine.

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