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Microaggressions in Non-verbal Communication: Examples & Impacts

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Though verbal microaggressions often receive more attention, the non-verbal ones can be just as damaging. This lesson provides examples and discusses the impacts of microaggressions in non-verbal communication.

Understanding Microaggressions

As a South Asian woman, Ruby is no stranger to microaggressions in the workplace. Microaggressions are subtle acts of discrimination; they might seem minor or even unnoticeable to many observers, but they impact their victim in powerful ways.

Ruby knows that many microaggressions are rooted in unconscious bias, or preconceived notions about those who belong to another group. For instance, many microaggressions are motivated by racial or gender differences.

Ruby has also caught herself perpetuating microaggressions. In her family growing up, there was a great deal of homophobia, and it can be hard for Ruby to move past the biases she has internalized about LGBT people. These sometimes impact her behavior.

Often, the microaggressions that get the most attention are verbal in nature. However, Ruby has also experienced many non-verbal microaggressions, those that do not involve spoken or written language. She starts reflecting on these examples and how they have impacted her and others in her workplace.

Examples of Non-Verbal Microaggressions

Ruby knows that non-verbal microaggressions can be incredibly subtle, but the victim almost never misses them when they occur.

Gender-Based Microaggression

A week ago, Ruby was at a meeting with several colleagues, the rest of whom were men. They were brainstorming ideas for an account they are working on together.

They went around the table, and each man offered an idea. When it was Ruby's turn, she said her idea, and the man next to her put his hand on her forearm as he responded. Each time Ruby spoke for the rest of the meeting, the man touched her in some way, patting her arm gently.

Ruby thought this was a condescending power play on the part of this colleague, a move designed to show her she was small and he was in control of her. She experienced this as a microaggression based on her gender.

Race-Based Microaggression

The other day, Ruby was heating up her lunch in the office kitchen, and many of her colleagues were also present. For lunch, she had brought some leftover dosas from her dinner the night before. Ruby eats all kinds of different food, but she happened to be having Indian food that day.

As she took her food out of the microwave and went to join her colleagues, she saw one colleague look at her food, hold her nose, and gesture subtly to another colleague. The other colleague swayed her body strangely, in what Ruby identified as a mocking imitation of Indian dance.

Suddenly, Ruby decided she would rather eat in the privacy of her cubicle.

Religion-Based Microaggression

Ruby loves Christmas, and sometimes she forgets that not everyone celebrates it. This year, she had occasion to remember that office décor can also function as an example of a non-verbal microaggression. Ruby hung tinsel, little Santa statues, and other Christmas decorations all around her desk.

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