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Unmasking Microaggressions: Navigating Subtle Workplace Insults

A Case in Point: Ageism in the AI Project

Consider this situation: you are one of the oldest workers at a company. One day, you want to join a project related to artificial intelligence, so you tell the boss about your willingness to contribute to this project. However, He said: “I am happy for your interest! However, we are not able to give that project to you since you might have difficulty learning the new technology”. What are the signs of microaggression in this scenario?


Understanding the Sting: Minor Acts, Major Impact

The comment from your boss is quite subtle. It is not hostile and even considerate, regarding your difficulty in learning some new digital technology at an older age. However, why is there a feeling of self-doubt and offence after hearing this comment? This situation is exactly what microaggression means.

Microaggression is a relatively minor insulting behaviour that creates disproportionate harm in a repressive way. What are some common misunderstandings regarding microaggression? What are the possible causes and impact of microaggressions? How to speak up for yourself in that situation? This article will answer the three questions respectively to assist you in recognising, understanding, and coping with microaggressions.

Breaking Down Misconceptions

People usually think microaggression only happens occasionally. In contrast, microaggression is a kind of subtle behaviour which systematically takes place. One with minor characteristics in social class, age, gender, race, and sexuality is likely to encounter highly similar microaggressions repeatedly.

Another common misunderstanding is that the “victims” should always ignore the microaggressions and have a “thicker skin” since the offenders are usually not insulting the victims on purpose. However, the offence already exists and cannot be eliminated by the ignorance of aggression. Minor aggressions can accumulate and grow into massively malicious behaviours, so we should pay more attention to microaggressions from the start.

Unseen Origins: Causes and Consequences of Microaggressions

The causes of microaggression can be multifaceted, and one of the main reasons is implicit bias. Perpetrators usually learn the behaviour of microaggression by observation at a younger age. After the experience, they will have unconscious or conscious negative thoughts toward a group of people, usually minorities. In this way, perpetrators will unconsciously insult specific groups in a subtle way when they grow up, which is also called microaggression.

The microaggression, which links to everyday discrimination, incurs significant harm to the victims. According to various research, microaggressions can be predictors of both mental and physical issues, including common mental disorders, loneliness, executive function, inflammation, and heart diseases.

Empowering Your Voice: Strategies to Address Microaggressions

When it comes to microaggressions, the reactions are generally three types: forget about it, respond immediately, and respond later. They all have their pros and cons. Ignoring the offence can maintain a peaceful environment on the surface, but in the long term, it can be emotionally exhausting. Responding immediately enables everyone involved to face the issues when the details are still clear in mind, but the perpetrator can get defensive and worsen the conflict. Responding later can offer everyone time to cool down and rethink, but the time lag can make the perpetrator more indifferent, which leads to ineffective discussions.

Actionable Insights: The 4 “Ds” Approach

To address the situation, the model of 4 “Ds” could be utilised— discern, disarm, defy, decide. Firstly, “discern” means you should analyse and determine how much you want to invest in addressing the microaggressions. The factors that you can consider include the importance/severity of this issue, the strength of your feelings, and how you want to be perceived. The situations and people’s personalities are highly different, so you do not need to be pressured to always respond to every microaggression.

Secondly, if you decide to speak up, you should be prepared to “disarm” the perpetrator. You should understand that the conversation about the insult might be uncomfortable for everyone. At this stage, you can describe what you heard and how you feel, and create space for both parties during the discussion. For example, sentences such as: “When I heard you say …, I felt that you might be implying or assuming …, which made me feel …”.

Thirdly, “defy” indicates challenging the perpetrator to clarify their words or actions. Probing and open-ended questions such as “Can you help me understand what you meant?” are usually good choices to scrutinise the perpetrator’s thoughts and intentions. The questions starting with “why” would better be avoided since they might provoke defensive emotions. After their explanation, you can also explain your initial interpretation and the reasons.

The last process is to “decide” and take control of the meaning of this incident for your work and life. The key is to protect and affirm your sense of self-worth, and not to believe the perpetrator’s words and actions are the genuine reflection of yourself.

In addition, except for the 4 “Ds” suggestion, keeping others and yourself accountable in the incidents is also crucial. You can try to seek help from others and talk to the witness about your feelings. If you are confronting the perpetrators, it is also good to have the presence of trustworthy third parties, which can protect your security and reputation.


Microaggressions, though subtle, can deeply impact mental and physical well-being. Understanding their causes and effects is important. Using strategies like the 4 “Ds”—discern, disarm, defy, decide—can help address them constructively. By promoting awareness and accountability, we can foster more inclusive and respectful environments. Remember, alleviating microaggressions is about affirming self-worth and encouraging mutual respect.

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