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Answering to micro-aggressions: the aggression-scale calibration

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This is true for micro-aggressions, as well as:

To understand how to answer properly to micro-aggression, you need to understand the aggression scale, and how to calibrate accordingly.

The Aggression Scale

Level 0. Neutral statement: does not take nor remove any power from you
Level 1. Non-value-taking joke: it shows that they can joke about you, but there is no malice
....
Levels 3/4/5/6. micro-aggression: this is the range of micro-aggressions and covert aggression
Level 7/8. verbal aggression: aggression with direct talk, or highly status damaging "jokes"
Level 9. threats / shouting:
Level 10, physical aggression: let's leave this out now, and it concerns less than 0.01% of social interactions anyway

aggression scale

Now the mistake that many people do when dealing with micro-aggression, is that they answer to micro-aggression with aggression.

Just take a look at the scale, and you are already able to see the problem.

So, what's the problem with aggression against micro-aggression?

When you answer to a level 4 aggression with a level 7 aggression, that leaves you at a +3 of aggression.
Such, as you effectively become the aggressor.
And albeit in certain situations you might want to be the aggressor, in many other situations, you don't. Especially, you don't want to be the aggressor as a reaction to someone else. Reacting with aggression to micro-aggression is the equivalent of letting others push your buttons.
If you choose aggression because you deem it to be good for the situation, great. But if you just use aggression at random, 90% of the time it will be out-of-place aggression.
Plus, those micro-aggressors might have an agenda against you, and your over-aggression might be exactly what they want.

When you answer with a level 8 to a level 4, it's easy for the initial aggressor to frame you as too aggressive.
Even if you win the ensuing argument, those arguments are usually lose-lose (when two grown-ups bicker, most people around think "what a bunch of morons").
And even if you win, you might still look too thin-skinned.

Covert aggressors can retreat to level-0, & then you're even more overly-aggressive

Second problem is that, with covert aggression, it's often easy for the covert-aggressor to frame his covert-aggression as a "joke" or a "statement with no malice in it".

See an example of overreacting to a micro-aggression:

Micro-aggressor: LOL, good to see Max tonight, it took a free dinner to make him came out (frames you as stingy)
Over-reactor: Excuse me?? That's inacceptable dude!  What are you implying. I spend as much as anyone else at this table. Take that back immediately and apologize.

And you know what comes next:

Micro-aggressor: dude, relax man, it was just a joke, what are you getting so hot about, we're just joking here

Since his initial aggression level was low, it's very possible the micro-aggressor can effectively manage to retreat to a 0 and get away with it. Especially if you're not good at explaining exactly what his game was, you have nowhere to go -and this is where power dynamics awareness helps you-.

What happens then is that, when he retreats -scorched earth technique-,  you look even more overly extended in your aggression.
So from a level 4 aggression, if he can retreat to a 0, that leaves you at +7, making your counter-aggression look all the more uncalled for.

Answering to micro-aggression

Now, this is where the real fun game begins.

Answering to micro-aggressions properly is all about calibration -and mastery of power dynamics-.
Just a few quick ideas:

  • Answer to humorous frames with humorous frames of your own:

there are some examples in PU

  • Go meta

such as, explain their game and explain how their micro-aggression was a value-taking power move, so they have no way to hide, and you look smart and polished in the process

  • Drop a quick, neutral comment

Micro-Aggressor: Oh, you didn't go back to his place? Wow (the intonation of the "wow" frames you as an easy woman, but without exposing herself)
You: Oh, that really wasn't very kind of you to say

That's it. if they don't answer, you drew your boundaries. If they answer, they only draw more attention to their own nasty power move

  • "Show me the hand technique"

This is frame control technique consists of "drawing covert aggressors out of their protective shield".

The rationale is: do they wanna throw a grenade? Fine, but at least they should have the courage of doing so in plain sight.

And, with micro-aggression, it means that you push it to either become a proper, direct criticism, or that they better withdraw.

Example:

Him: LOL, good to see Max tonight, it took a free dinner to make him come out (frames you as stingy)
You: What do you mean by that

Then keep on going until they start tripping on themselves and either backtrack, or come out in the open with their criticism.

  • Reframe:

Him: LOL, good to see Max tonight, it took a free dinner to make him come out (frames you as stingy)
You: yeah man, I am seeking to save indeed. I think it's important to save and invest for your dreams, I'm not into throwing money down the drain with drinks and random girls

Now you frame him as someone throwing money away for short-term gratification while you frame yourself as a man working on his dreams.

  • ....

Etc. etc., this goes back to frames and frame control techniques, and there is plenty of that on this website already.

Summary

This post clarified the concept of calibration.

There are exceptions, as always, but as a rule of thumb, you want to answer to provocation at around the same level of aggression (power calibration).

Calibrating avoids unneeded escalation, avoids making enemies over small stuff and, equally important, it makes you come across as socially smart and polished. And that's all power and status for you.

For a real-life example, both of calibration failure and correct calibration, see:

 

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

potentially life-saving advice here.

do we have a post on methods of de-escalation?

 

Quote from Stef on August 26, 2020, 10:24 pm

Do we have a post on methods of de-escalation?

We do need something like that soon, eh?
There is something in PU, but definitely deserves more space.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

I've recently run into an issue where I have to deal with this, the problem is that the person using it on me mixes it up so that it sometimes it sounds like an order, but sometimes it sounds perfectly reasonable. It throws me off because if I react instinctively, it can look like an overreaction if I miss the mark. Here's a few examples:

"Go push that button" (When we're walking on the street and he wants me to activate the crosswalk lights)

"Grab that for me"

He never says please, or even asks "hey, do you mind grabbing that for me?" or "Could you push that button?". They are literally orders. Now here's where it throws me off.

"Ok cool, call me back after" (After I pick up his phone call and tell him I'm in the middle of something)

"Sure, just let me know" (After he offers to help me, and I tell him that I need to deal with some things beforehand)

As you can see, these phrases are typical responses to the situation. I don't see those as power moves.

If I respond too quickly with something like, "haha, you really like ordering people around, don't you?" It sounds a bit too aggressive if it's one of those situations where these phrases are typical. If I take time to figure out if the situation requires a "power move" response and come up with an appropriate answer, we'll already be talking or doing something else. Now if I go meta, I feel like I'm making it a much bigger deal than it is. Now, I have managed to call him out on it once because he did it over text. But over the phone, or in-person, I get thrown off. Would there be a decent power move response that would cover both situations, so I don't need to take time to figure it out in real time?

"Go push that button"

I would ignore him as if I were deaf, maybe do some facial expression to hint to him the reasson, until he ask me why, then I explain: I was waiting for the magic word (please), I will do it as if I find the situation funny and non serious, as if I were amused and entertained with his attempt to give me orders (as I would react to a cute small children trying to tell me what to do).

 

 

Quote from JP on October 5, 2020, 6:36 am

I've recently run into an issue where I have to deal with this, the problem is that the person using it on me mixes it up so that it sometimes it sounds like an order, but sometimes it sounds perfectly reasonable. It throws me off because if I react instinctively, it can look like an overreaction if I miss the mark. Here's a few examples:

"Go push that button" (When we're walking on the street and he wants me to activate the crosswalk lights)

"Grab that for me"

He never says please, or even asks "hey, do you mind grabbing that for me?" or "Could you push that button?". They are literally orders. Now here's where it throws me off.

"Ok cool, call me back after" (After I pick up his phone call and tell him I'm in the middle of something)

"Sure, just let me know" (After he offers to help me, and I tell him that I need to deal with some things beforehand)

As you can see, these phrases are typical responses to the situation. I don't see those as power moves.


Depending on the delivery, I totally see them as power moves, at least the first 2, I would be annoyed as well.

"Sure, just let me know" sounds natural, but with the general frame of the dude you described they may even turn something like this into a power move.

If I respond too quickly with something like, "haha, you really like ordering people around, don't you?" It sounds a bit too aggressive if it's one of those situations where these phrases are typical.

I think it's not optimal to only use that alone, because it may be too "aggressive" if you say it right after their first micro-aggression, and if you wait for several to pile up - well you may have to wait passivele while being microaggressed against. Though still better than silently obeying their orders.

 

If I take time to figure out if the situation requires a "power move" response and come up with an appropriate answer, we'll already be talking or doing something else. Now if I go meta, I feel like I'm making it a much bigger deal than it is. Now, I have managed to call him out on it once because he did it over text. But over the phone, or in-person, I get thrown off.

Would there be a decent power move response that would cover both situations, so I don't need to take time to figure it out in real time?

Yes, you could just say a bored:

"No." or "Nah dude."

Not an angry one as that would imply you take their orders serious and are rebelling against their power over you, which is not even there, so no need to pretend it were. If a random small girl tells you out of nowhere to lay on the dirty ground you don't seriously react with a "NOOOO!!! I WILL NOT!! YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME!!!!".

 

"Go push that button"

Nah dude. [silence] -> May be interesting how they react, if possible don't break the silence. If they ask why you can explay you don't take orders and expect a "please" as Stef said.

 

And only:

"Push that button"

If you are with other people as well you could say a neutral "No." at them (effortless, not turning your head too far) and then push the button immediatly anyway if it is necessary for the situation. Immediatly because if you respond with "No." and then wait for 3 seconds and then do it anyway it seems as if you can't take the pressure and that looks weak. Also don't take a joking frame during this or directly afterwards, as that would kind of imply - "I was just jokingly not obeying you, of course you give me orders".

If the other people show surprise because you said "No." but did it anyway, you then can explain that you take no orders as you are not a flunky, but you decided that it was necessary for the situation to push the button so you did, that other people want it pushed too and used that to issue orders without a "please" or "could you", is independant from that.

 

Quote from Stef on October 5, 2020, 7:02 am

"Go push that button"

I would ignore him as if I were deaf, maybe do some facial expression to hint to him the reasson, until he ask me why, then I explain: I was waiting for the magic word (please), I will do it as if I find the situation funny and non serious, as if I were amused and entertained with his attempt to give me orders (as I would react to a cute small children trying to tell me what to do).

I think this is funny and very effective.

With facial expressions you are probably looking directly at the micro-aggressor, and it is then absolutely important that when you two have eyecontact, you can not break first. It may last painfully long, but you can not be the one who looks away out of weakness* . This is a showdown. If you win the problem may has solved itself already.

*And especially not looking away downwards, if there is something external you absolutely have to look at you should break upwards or sidewards.

Yes, the issue isn't that I don't know what to say, it's that I don't know what to say IN THE MOMENT. Because he tends to mix up power moves and non-power moves, it throws me off. I feel that if I don't think quick and respond with something less aggressive, that moment will pass and I won't get my power back.

However, I've thought about this, and I think it's best that I slow down my speech (I have a tendency to talk fast) and incorporate pauses so that I can give myself time to respond with something to get my power back, and if the moment passes, then it will be as if I had just ignored him.

I realize too, that I've developed a need to answer people when questioned. When someone asks me a question, I find it hard to leave an awkward silence. Especially if it's just me and the other person.

Agreed with Anon, the first two sound like power moves.

The second two does not sound like power moves, and might even be respectful -he accepts you're doing something else and lets you keep doing it-.

I liked both Stef's and Anon's options.
To complement Anon's suggesiton, you can also consider answering "why should I" or "why should I pick your stuff" / "why me and not you".
That's probably easy to do since asking for clarification and starting with "why" is natural.
Then, he has you to provide with a reason for his tasking. No matter what they say, they expend effort, and that by itself already thwarts and weakens the power move. It somewhat rebalances things out.

Another option to consider:

  1. Do the same to him, see how he reacts
  2. If he refuses, use it against him the next time he tasks you

If he does it, then you're even and he's not trying to one-up you. If he refuses, then you set a precedent which you can leverage. Next time he tasks you, you can say "wait a second, what did you say / do the last time I asked you the same?".

And good call on slowing down your speech. More time to think is more time to strategize, and more power.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

One more note:

Asking "why" works best in situations where tasking felt uncalled for.
If it escalates, you can use the same covert technique, for example:

Him: Go grab me my jacket
You: (surprised look, neutral tone) why should I bring you your jacket. It's yours, right?
Him: you're close to it man
You: yeah, but it sounds like you're ordering people around man
Him: what are you talking about, I'm just asking for a favor
You: that's cool man (retrating under cover to avoid looking too thin-skinned with an escalation), that's just not how it sounded (But you still place one more zinger to make sure your point gets across and you're not there to service him ever again)

Tommy in Goodfellas does something similar here (before losing completely ehehe):

Bill Batts: (...) he used to make your shoes like fucking mirrors (...) (the most iconic covert aggression in movie history :D)
(...)
Tommy
I said, no more shines. Maybe you didn't hear about it, you've been away a long time. They didn't go up there and tell you. I don't shine shoes anymore (escalates the covert aggression)
Billy Batts : Relax, will ya? Ya flip right out, what's got into you? I'm breaking your balls a little bit, that's all. I'm only kidding with ya... (retreats under cover, now Tommy risks looking over-extended, thin-skinned, and in the wrong)
Tommy: Sometimes you don't sound like you're kidding, you know, there's a lotta people around... (keeps the escalation going, but in a cool and controlled manner, he also somewhat retreats. You can do something similar, just more covert and more on the "whatever", friendly scale)
Billy Batts: I'm only kidding with you, we're having a party, I just came home and I haven't seen you in a long time and I'm breaking your balls, and you're getting fucking fresh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. (retreats further yet, now Tommy would look out of place, and in the wrong, if he keeps the aggression on, and Tommy indeed is forced to apologize)

Billy Batts had won. But, not happy, he overdoes it and goes from 80% covert, to 90% full-scale aggression.
And it turned out to be a mistake.
Enemies disempower, and the rule applies twice as much if you're moving in gang environments :).

Iconic scene of covert power moves, by the way 🙂

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Detach. Then you will see more clearly the situation. Worst case scenario you won't be bothered and will understand better the situation. Best case scenario you will know what to respond or not respond if you choose to ignore him. I made a post on both topics of detachment and bullying. Let me know if you have questions on this topic. It's a powerful tool and yes, it comes with more space to think and to respond.

 

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