Most of us are aware of the importance of sporting a smile rather than a frown in order to be perceived positively by others. When we’re smiling, people assume we’re happy, or that we like being with them, or both. However, what we may not realize is that our face communicates emotions just as powerful through much more subtle signals. A microexpression is, as it sounds, one of those small, subtle signals.
Those little crinkles that form around your eyes are one example of a microexpression. So are the glances that you give when you look around or even the very faint glance you shoot at a stranger who bumps against your shoulder while standing in line. A microexpression can suggest to the stranger that you’re okay with this invasion of your personal space—or that if he or she doesn’t back off, something bad might happen.
Just as there are microexpressions that can either alienate or endear us to others, so there are micro-behaviors, consisting of words and actions that either help or hinder our relationships with others. Columbia University psychologist Derald Sue (2010) coined the term microaggression to refer to harmful actions that occur just below the level of outright aggression.
The specific context in which Sue and his collaborators examined the idea of microaggression is that of racial discrimination. They proposed that overt racism has gone underground and been replaced by subtler kinds of communication in which perpetrators (who many not be consciously aware of what they’re doing) commit everyday kinds of indignities in which they belittle, insult, or otherwise slight people from other racial groups.
George Washington University psychologist Tessa Basford (2014) and her associates proposed that microaggressions can be committed against any target of discrimination. They argue that sexist behaviors have undergone a similar transformation and see it as possible that microaggressions are committed against women by men who cannot or do not overtly ascribe to sexist views.
Below, I’ll explain how the Basford team defined and measured microaggression against women, but first I’d like to flip the concept to its opposite—microaffections. Because our verbal and nonverbal behaviors let others in our everyday lives know how we’re feeling, is it not possible that we just as often express prosocial sentiments in these barely perceptible ways?
Return to that stranger who gave you an accidental shove. If your microexpression communicates that you don’t mind or even think it’s funny, you’ll have made an opening foray into what could be a pleasant conversation that passes the time while you both wait. Similarly, with people who are already in your life—or whom you would like to have in your life—you can provide cues that you’re content to be around them and are enjoying their company. Even better, putting those feelings into words or deeds can help people feel more comfortable and relaxed around you.
Now, let’s take a look at those microaggressions. Basford and her collaborators cleverly devised a set of workplace scenarios that described situations in which women were exposed to various levels of microaggressions. The purpose of the study was to determine whether people reading these scenarios would recognize them as such. Also, the team tried to find out how harmful those microaggresions might be, as perceived by the participants.
The team’s workplace scenarios ranged from neutral to coming just short of outright aggression. Participants were instructed to rate them on the seriousness of the offense, and they assessed the perceived negative consequence of each. You can test yourself on how accurately you can rate them. (I’ve synopsized each one for the sake of length).
In each case, the supervisor is a man and the supervisee is a woman:
- Scenario 1: A manager tells a sales employee that she’s doing a great job, but the clothes she wears send the wrong message to clients because they’re too "feminine."
- Scenario 2: A supervisor tells his supervisee that she’s doing a good job, all around, but that she could benefit from more training because "there’s always room for improvement."
- Scenario 3: A newly-hired worker racks up a string of accomplishments. After making a formal presentation about these, her manager asks her who helped her with the presentation.
- Scenario 4: In talking about a co-worker to her boss, a female employee reports that she overheard a male co-worker speak critically about her ability to lead because she’s a woman. The boss states that the woman is overreacting, because the co-worker in question “just isn’t like that.”
According to Basford's data, participants (who were undergraduate students) were able to detect the level of microaggression in each scenario and to differentiate the potential impact on the workers. Scenario 1, called a “microassault,” was the most harmful, followed by Scenario 3, a “microinsult," and Scenario 4, a “microinvalidation." Scenario 2, in which the boss offers constructive feedback, was perceived as not harmful and, in fact, fit the category of “no microaggresion.”
Extrapolating to relationships, you can also see how these scenarios might apply between romantic partners. A husband may constantly devalue his wife’s accomplishments, fail to take her seriously, or comment negatively about her appearance in ways that could make her feel like less of an equal.
Whether in the home or the workplace, any expression of a microaggression leads you to be perceived more negatively by others. If the college students in this study, hardly experts on workplace dynamics, could pick up on these subtle forms of sexism, it stands to reason that any adult watching these behaviors could draw similar conclusions about the way you might be perceived.
As important as these findings are for expanding our understanding of gender discrimination, we can also learn from them how micro-affections might help you in your close relationships. Being sensitive to inadvertent slights you might commit that can hurt your relationship partner can help you avoid making the partner feel bad about himself or herself. Conversely, providing those you care about with positive vibes can make them feel better about themselves—and about you.