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Microaggressions: respond or let it go?


Tom’s farewell drink had got off to a good start and, after a few glasses, everyone was in high spirits. Carried away by the party atmosphere, Fulvio said to one of his colleagues: “So, Birgit, when are you finally going to update your wardrobe?” Birgit hesitated for a moment, not knowing whether or not she should reply. Not wanting to spoil the mood, she decided to keep quiet and just laughed, a bit embarrassed. As the evening went on, she forgot about it, but when she got back home, the feeling of unease returned. She decided to mention the incident to Fulvio the next time she saw him. The next day, she took him to one side and said calmly: “Fulvio, I know you didn’t mean to hurt me, but I want you to know that I found your comment highly inappropriate, and I’d appreciate it if it didn’t happen again”. Fulvio will probably realise his mistake and apologise. It was important that Birgit talk to him.

Have you, like Birgit, ever been the target of a comment or gesture that seemed innocent but still left you feeling uneasy? You say to yourself: “What if I kick up a fuss over nothing? After all, I mustn’t draw attention to myself. There must be something about me that attracts these comments”. The problem with microaggressions, as they’re called, is that they seem trivial and innocent, but they can be painful when you’re on the receiving end. Even if the person responsible didn’t mean to hurt you, the very fact that you’ve sensed a microaggression means that you’re justified in reacting to it as quickly as possible. An attitude that you feel to be demeaning can worsen over time if you don’t break the vicious circle immediately and decisively.

If you’re unsure of the appropriate response, don’t agonise over it on your own. Talk to a neutral person whom you trust completely, such as the Ombud. 

Pierre Gildemyn

If you’d like to comment on any of my articles or suggest a topic that I could write about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Ombuds@cern.ch.