Do No Harm — 3 Nonverbal Microaggressions to Eliminate

Melinda Briana Epler and Ritu Bhasin presenting a webinar

Excerpted from the new book How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace (McGraw-Hill) by Melinda Briana Epler 

When we do our work as allies to reduce microaggressions, we often focus on verbal microaggressions. However, nonverbal microaggressions can be just as harmful. Here are three workplace nonverbal microaggressions to eliminate: 

Invisibilization 

Invisibilization is a form of othering: “I don’t see you or recognize you.” This could happen in meetings or events, where no one introduces themselves to a person with an underrepresented identity. Or walking past someone and pretending they don’t exist. This happens to me often in my own neighborhood in San Francisco, the heart of the tech industry: men will literally run into me because they don’t see me, or expect me to move out of their way.  

Examples: 

  • Ignoring someone’s presence in the room, in a conversation, or in a public space. 
  • Not inviting someone to a meeting when they should be there because of their expertise and role.  
  • Having non-senior-level people or non-“VIPs” sit against the wall versus at the table.  
  • Seeing or treating two Black women as interchangeable. 


Be mindful of inclusion in meetings—invite people to be in the room where decisions are made, with a powerful position at that table. Ensure everyone is introduced to one another. Acknowledge, listen, humanize, and empathize.
 

Not paying attention 

Examples:  

  • Multitasking while someone is speaking.  
  • Talking aside to someone else when a person is sharing an idea or experience.  
  • Closing off your body or communicating disinterest when someone is speaking.
 

Give people your full attention. Put down your phone, close your laptop, and pay attention. Practice empathetic listening. Use open body language and facial expressions that connect with the speaker, show you are truly listening and care what they have to say. If someone is new to a group or company, the only person like them in the room, or just nervous, this can make a huge difference. And you may also find that you remember more about what they say. 

This can be especially challenging In the virtual workplace, as our facial expressions are highlighted on the screen. We often move from Zoom to Zoom and carry energy from the meetings before, or general lethargy and disinterest because we’ve had so many meetings. It shows on our faces and body language and can be hard on anyone trying to run a meeting or share their ideas. Take a moment between meetings to reset your energy. 

Avoidance 

When we fear saying or doing the wrong thing, we might avoid someone altogether. This avoidance can have long-term effects on someone’s life. 

Examples: 

  • Not interviewing or approaching someone because you “don’t know how” or “don’t know how to accommodate.”  
  • Avoiding the seat next to a person with a marginalized identity, or sitting further away than normal in a conversation or an interview.  
  • Asking different questions in a job interview because you are afraid to ask them, or assume you know the response.  
  • Not giving someone proper feedback to grow.  


The first time I learned about avoidance was in 2016 while talking with Victor Calise, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Earlier that year we held our Ability in Tech Summit to address diversity, equity, and inclusion for people with disabilities in tech. I shared with him that for our career fair portion of the event, tech companies repeatedly said they “couldn’t” come because their teams had not been trained on how to talk to people with disabilities, or they didn’t know how to accommodate them. Victor told me avoidance is commonly experienced by people with disabilities—and since then I’ve recognized similar avoidance happening with Black, LGBTQIA+, and Muslim colleagues and friends, as well as people with other marginalized identities.
 

Don’t let fear be a reason or excuse for exclusion. Do the work to learn how to speak with, interview, or accommodate someone. Avoidance often reveals itself in formal and informal feedback as well: make sure you are providing quality feedback so people can grow in their work. 

Who are you avoiding out of fear or lack of knowledge?  

What can you do to change that? 

Learn more about nonverbal microaggressions and how to interrupt them in How to Be an Ally. 

***

Like what you’re reading? Sign up for bci’s mailing list to get the latest diversity and inclusion insights right to your inbox every month.

Is there an DEI subject area you’re interested in learning more about or a question you’d like us to answer? Email your thoughts and questions to info@bhasinconsulting.com.

We'd Love to Hear from You!

bci logo

Get the latest insights when
you sign up for
our mailing list!