Digital microaggressions and how to handle them

Wednesday 24 February 2021
Working remotely and in digital spaces opens people up to new, sometimes subtle microaggressions. Here’s how to spot and deal with them
Person's face illuminated by phone screen, looking sad

As it stands, we’re currently letting colleagues more into our working lives than ever before: we’re showing them our homes and trying to be more honest about our feelings and stresses of work and the pandemic. But what happens when relationships turn sour, and you are still expected to work pleasantly with colleagues, with these barriers now down? It’d be remiss to say that microaggressions have been neatly left behind in physical workspaces.

“They’re still present, but a little bit different,” says Lee Chambers, environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant for Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing. “It’s coming into our own homes. These generally unintentional, hostile communications still come in. And more often than not it's in a bigger group situation.”

Microaggressions can be difficult to spot; by their nature, they are often subtle and open to interpretation. In this relatively new ‘digital first’ sphere, the removal of many office norms has worn down certain professional barriers that would otherwise reduce the occurrence of microaggressions.

“When people are suddenly in their domestic environment – a place where they might even be more aggressive to their family and the people around them – those elements can come to the fore a bit more,” says Chambers.

The three most common types of microaggressions

Micro-aggressions broadly break down into three categories.

  • Micro-assaults: These are the more obviously aggressive forms of micro-aggression, such as the use of racial slurs or people refusing to work with someone because of their background. This is less common online in group Zoom meetings or on platforms such as Slack, where communication is easily evidenced.
  • Micro-insults: These are subtle snubs and rude statements that work to belittle someone or a group of people on a team. From a racism perspective, it could be a statement such as “you’re not like most black people”, but in the context of digital spaces, it could be singling someone out for their choice of wallpaper, or a comment on their appearance. It also includes insensitive jokes that aren’t necessarily directed at someone, but makes people feel uncomfortable.
  • Micro-invalidations:  This is probably the most common form of micro-aggression digitally. This could involve talking over someone when they try to speak, ignoring their ideas, or simply dismissing their concerns as being overly sensitive. Good managers should be alert to these in a digital environment.

The effect of lost barriers

Working at home makes us more vulnerable in situations with colleagues, but it also makes us more comfortable. This is a perfect storm for micro-aggressions to become more prevalent. The individuals doing the micro-aggressing may not be aware that they are making people feel uncomfortable; as far as they’re concerned, they are expressing themselves in a more relaxed way.

It can also happen on group calls with a lot of attendees, which can compound the emotional impacts on people. “In a meeting room, you're limited on space,” says Chambers. “On a Zoom or Teams, you could have 24 faces looking at you.”

We all need to be mindful of the language that we use on video calls and the other various platforms that we are using, be it Slack, WhatsApp groups and email. In particular with written communication, which removes your tone and body language, it is important that you check what you’ve written and make sure that nothing can be misconstrued. Poorly worded messages can inadvertently be insulting or invalidating via email.

“We need to be increasingly mindful about being able to identify micro-aggressions,” says Chambers. You need to read something back and identify whether it’s going to make other people uncomfortable? Is it going to make other people feel a certain way? It only takes a second to reread things.”

Our mindsets can cause us to behave in ways that we wouldn’t usually do. Switching between digital platforms, for example, can erode our focus and concentration, which can cause cognitive fatigue. “It means we can be more likely to slip into default patterns, which might be micro-aggressing to others,” says Chambers.

How to deal with digital micro-aggressions

With any microaggression, the first step is to identify that one has occurred. Managers in particular, but also the wider team, should learn about what microaggressions look like and the effects they can have on individuals.

Recipients of microaggressions should try to take a mindful response, rather than emotionally reacting in the moment, which could open up more aggressive behaviour. Take the time to consider the best response, says Chambers.

“Take the time to think what you want to achieve. Do you want to raise awareness? Do you want an apology? If you understand what outcome you're looking for, it makes it easier to choose how you address it.”

Microaggressions don't always get resolved, but for your own wellbeing, try not to get hung up about that, says Chambers. Instead, push for organisational awareness around the issue. The more awareness of microaggressions is built into the culture, the more others will identify it as well.

“Managers need to be particularly vigilant at the minute, because we're all visitors into each other's homes. Managers need to be able to take those situations and find a way to mediate on a surface level. Then gradually, work to build organisational awareness so that it doesn't become a continual problem for people.”

If you’re experiencing microaggressions at work, we hope you feel able to take them to your manager. Please find more wellbeing support on our mental health hub.

You may also be interested in signing up to our upcoming webinar with Jummy Okoya on how to challenge microaggressions – get your tickets here.

And do please check out the resources on Mind’s bullying page for more advice and guidance.

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