Intent, impact, and microaggressions

One of the things I really like about working in higher education is the relatively relaxed work environment. I’m lucky to work with a great bunch of people who work hard, care about their contribution to higher education, and who also enjoy a bit of fun and banter in the office. A lot of us are using a sense of humour to help us cope with the current uncertainties facing the sector and our lives. 

We tell jokes and we make fun of each other in a gentle, collegiate way. 

But what happens if our jokes don’t resonate with everyone? What happens if someone says something that was intended to be funny and light hearted, but actually hurt their colleague’s feelings, offended them, or otherwise had a negative impact? What if the joke had derogatory undertones for some people that not everyone is aware of, or relies on negative stereotypes? 

These kinds of instances happen all the time in the workplace, and can be summarised as a mismatch between intent (i.e. a harmless joke) and impact (causing offence). It might not be a joke, either. It could be a comment, intended perhaps as a compliment, but which has a negative impact. Think about how the following sentences might be intended as a compliment, but could cause a negative impact on someone:

“Wow your English is really good”

“You’re so articulate” 

There is nothing inherently wrong with these statements, and they could well be received in their intended way. 

However, depending on a person’s background, and their past experiences of discrimination, statements like these could well be received as a “microaggression”. Microaggressions are comments or behaviours that don’t seem overtly offensive. But when these comments and behaviours are regularly directed towards particular people due to their gender, cultural background, sexuality or appearance, they accumulate a lifetime of meaning. 

Comments like “your English is really good” or “you’re so articulate” can be laced with a sort of surprise - that expectations are being exceeded in some way. That is, the expectation is that your English wouldn’t be good, or that you would be inarticulate. And these expectations are often founded on negative stereotypes of people of colour in particular. 

Still a bit confused? This is a really great video that explains microaggressions and their impact, by comparing them to mosquito bites (please note there is a bit of bad language in this video). If you’d rather avoid thar, this explainer is a bit longer, but has some clear examples in the first 2-3 minutes.

So what do we do if we realise our joke or comment, which was supposed to be funny or complimentary, has in fact harmed a colleague or caused them discomfort? 

Step 1

Apologise to the person you have offended or made to feel uncomfortable. This does not have to be a big deal. Try something like “I understand that my joke/comment caused you discomfort. I sincerely apologise, and I’m going to learn more about this so I can do better in the future”. 

Do not imply that your colleague is “sensitive” or needs to get on board with the joke - it’s not up to you to determine where another person’s boundaries are. The onus is on you to learn more about how jokes and comments can impact others, not on the other person to adjust their reaction because your intent was not malicious. 

Step 2

Check out some of the available information on microaggressions, and think about how these may impact people in your particular community. 

Step 3

Forgive yourself and move on. If you can complete Step 1 and 2, you’re doing really well in being part of a positive and inclusive culture.

Step 4

Keep an eye out for microaggressions, even if they don’t impact you directly. Have a chat with a colleague about what you’ve learned and spread the knowledge you’ve gained through this process. 

Microaggressions are complicated - they occur due to myriad factors, many of which are beyond our control as individuals. But following these steps will help promote a culture in which recipients of microaggressions (or witnesses) feel more comfortable raising them as an issue, and will help us all learn more about how to keep our workplace lighthearted and fun, but free of microaggressions. 

Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing