Microaggressions include all the little annoying, daily power moves that you are not sure whether to address or not, and how to address.
Well, you should address them, and this post will teach you how.
First, though, what are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are sometimes defined in racial terms, like this one:
If you let these microaggressions slip, you -and the people around- internalize the frame of “German superiority” and, consequently, of your inferiority. Microaggressions are also a battle of the mind
But we’re not dealing just with racism here, and we address microaggression in a larger context.
The reason is simple: anyone can be a victim of microaggressions, and every well-meaning individual deserves empowerment -we don’t fall for white guilt-tripping or for babying virtue-signaling “support” on this website-.
- Microaggression: Definition
- Microaggression & Calibration
- Miscalibrations Against Microaggression
- Answering To Microaggressions
- #1. Surfacing Technique
- #2. Show Me The Hand Technique
- #3. Give Them Rope
- #4. Shame Them With Vulnerability
- #5. Ignore With Neutral Statements (One-Crosses)
- #6. Go Meta: Explain Their Game
- #7. Reframe It Into A Positive
- #8. “Affectionate Dominance”
- #9. Use Sarcasm VS Sarcasm
- #10. Fight Fire With Fire (Mirror Technique)
- Why Mastering Microaggressions
We define microaggression as:
Aggressions, insults, or generally value-taking social behavior expressed in covert or indirect forms, and characterized by low to moderate intensity of aggression.
In “microaggression” we include:
- Covert aggressions / covert power moves / covert frames
- Passive-aggressiveness / frenemies
- Social climbing / power scalping
- Undermining / Status scalping
- Micro revenge
- Teasing / mean jokes / ballbusting / micro one-uppings
- Smaller shit tests / loyalty tests
For simplicity, in more vernacular and slang terms, think of all these types of microaggressions as “the little shit” people play.
They are not overly aggressive, or super obvious, but they do are annoying, they do harm relationships, and they do disempower you.
The crucial skills to deal with them are:
- Power dynamics awareness, to see microaggression: the ability to see and feel the microaggressions
- Social calibration: the ability to meet microaggressions at the appropriate level
- Smart social strategies, to deal with microaggressions effectively: the techniques to effectively deal with microaggression, and come out winning (or win-winning, when possible)
This website takes care of No.1, the general power-awareness.
And this article covers No.2 and No.3, the calibration and social strategies for microaggressions.
Why We Consider Them Together
The above list of “little everyday power moves” are not all exactly the same.
But we look at them together because:
- Addressing them separately adds unneeded complexity and leads to analysis-paralysis
- They’re all similar enough, that we can use similar strategies for them all
Looking at them as a whole also cuts your learning curve, while improving your social effectiveness.
To show you why they’re similar, let’s see a quick example.
Take a snarky comment like this:
You: Damn, I lost my wallet and I had everything in it
Him: Well, if you keep ignoring what I say…
This is all of them:
- It’s passive-aggressive: That’s textbook passive-aggression
- It’s a microaggression: It’s a low-intensity blame game that only adds grief to an already bad situation
- It’s a micro one-up: It indirectly says “I know better, hence you better listen to me”
- It’s a micro-revenge: “You didn’t listen to me, you had it coming, and now I’m rubbing it in”
- It’s power scalping: Takes advantage of an unfortunate circumstance to look better by comparison
- It’s covert aggression: If you get angry, it’s easy to duck under cover with something like “chill man, I’m just saying” (or: “I’m just saying ’cause I care, it wasn’t me who lost it”)
Microaggression & Calibration
To deal with microaggressions, we must first understand microaggression.
And the quickest way to understand it, is with the “aggression scale”.
The Aggression Scale
Picture the aggression scale as the following:
- Negative level: Submits / give power away / empowers you / etc.
- Level 0. Neutral: Does not take nor remove any power from you
- Levels 1./2. Nano-aggression: Non-value taking joke, light teasing, etc.
- Levels 3./4./5. Microaggression: one-upping / value-taking jokes & teasing / rubbing it in / etc.
- Level 6./7./8. Aggression: Direct talk aggression / shunning & isolating / aggressive “pathologizing” / highly status damaging “jokes”/ etc.
- Level 9. Hostility: Threats / threatening body language / shouting / highly offensive remarks / anger-fueled rants / etc.
- Level 10. Physical aggression: Let’s leave this out now, and it concerns less than 0.01% of social interactions anyway
In the aggression scale there is a link between:
- Intensity / effort
- Offensiveness / value-taking
- Ownership / cover
Higher levels in the scale also tend to be more direct, as well as requiring more effort and more personal ownership.
There are exceptions, though.
Body language is one of them. Since it can be quite offensive and value-taking, while still being low-effort and easy to deny (high-cover):
Sneering or smiling at someone is a nasty judge power move that says “you’re not good enough”. But, since it’s low-effort and covert, it’s a microaggression that can be very unnerving
And because some covert microaggressions can be very unnerving as well as status-sapping, many people tend to escalate covert microaggressions with direct talk or aggression.
The problem with that?
It’s a problem of directness and calibration.
Just take a look at the scale, and it becomes apparent:
The mistake that many people do when dealing with microaggression, is that they answer to covert microaggression (low in the scale) with overt aggression (high in the scale).
This concept is key to the solution.
So let’s analyze it better.
Miscalibrations Against Microaggression
First, a note:
It’s possible to be too passive and submissive in the face of microaggression.
And that’s equally a mistake.
However, since the issue with over-submission is more obvious, we will address here less obvious mistake of over-reaction.
#1. Fight Microaggression With Aggression = Too Much
In this box, you’re thin-skinned and overreactive
Here is a chart to make it clearer:
The X-axis represents the scale of intensity of aggression, emotion, and effort
He attacks you at a 4 level.
You answer at a 7.
What’s the result?
When you answer to a level 4 microaggression with a level 7 aggression, that leaves you at a +3 of aggression and effort.
Such, as you effectively become the aggressor.
And you expend too much effort on a micro-aggressor, which makes you look overreacting, and it disempowers you.
Of course, social strategies are contextual.
And in certain situations, you might want to be the aggressor. But often, you don’t -not at work, for example, and usually not with friends, or relationships-.
Especially, you don’t want to be the aggressor as a reaction to someone else. Because reacting with aggression to microaggression is the equivalent of letting others push your buttons.
Plus, those micro-aggressors might have an agenda.
And their agenda, either conscious or unconscious, might be to “get a rise out of you” (see “Berne, 1964“). And you don’t want to play right in the hands of the micro-aggressors, or you enter a never-ending game of lose-lose (see the combative relationships constant micro-warfare, for example)-.
The Over-Aggressive Frame Trap
When you answer with a level 7 to a level 4, it’s also easy for a socially astute micro-aggressor to frame you in a negative light.
Sure, an escalation might take place, and you might win it.
But arguments borne out of smaller stuff are usually lose-lose. When two grown-ups bicker for nothing, most people around think “what a bunch of morons”.
And sometimes, when you use aggression against microaggression, bystanders might actually intervene to defend the microaggressor.
For a real-life example, please check this forum entry:
That was the forum entry that led to this article, by the way.
#2. Fight Covert-Aggression With Aggression = WAY too much
In this box, you’re overly aggressive, touchy, or a fool
It gets worse:
The characteristic of most microaggression is that they are also covert aggression.
Such, as it’s easy for the micro-aggressor to retreat and deny their microaggression even existed -you know, there was no malice in their “joke”-.
You’ve seen these.
It’s the typical:
I was just joking
Maaan, relax (with a body language of “you’re so freaking tense”)
Don’t take it so personally dude
We joke all the times like that, nobody ever takes it so seriously (= you’re the overly-touchy exception here)
When micro-aggressors do that, they are effectively retreating under a (fake) kinder and more pro-social cover.
Such as: covert aggressors can retreat to an even lower level of aggression, and then you appear even more overly-aggressive by comparison.
When that happens, they look even more innocent, and you look even more thin-skinned, and emotionally out of control.
Microaggression is often a lose-lose game, the micro-aggressors don’t really gain that much status. But the problem when you overreact is that you do lose a lot of social status and reputation.
From a social-dynamics point of you, you get this:
This is the dynamic of a covert aggressor ducking for cover
See an example of overreacting to a microaggression:
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 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 also possible the micro-aggressor can effectively manage to retreat to a level zero.
He might also use this dynamic to launch into a full-fledged defense of the initial frame.
For example, he retreats under the “joke” guise, makes you extend and aggress, and then he might provide reasons why you’re stingy (“scorched-earth technique”).
And now you’re bickering, the dinner is ruined, and you are defending yourself against a frame that is becoming more and more real.
#3. Fight Manipulative Microaggression With Aggression = You’re Burned
Wait… It can get even worse.
The micro-aggressor can not only deny he meant any harm, but that he had your best interest in mind -or the team’s best interest in mind-.
You can get this at work.
Covert aggressor: I’m not criticizing you, I only want to reach the best possible decisions (= maybe you’re about “team you”, but I’m about the whole team)
Or in toxic relationships:
Covert aggressor: I’m only saying this because I care about you. And instead of appreciating me, you get angry? This is unbelievable!
Now from micro-aggressors, they frame themselves as caring and value-adding.
And you become a nasty abuser.
It can get very gaslighting.
From a social dynamics point of view, you get this:
This is the dynamic of “manipulative covert aggression”, and it can get very gaslighting
So, are there any solutions?
Yes, we get you covered.
Answering To Microaggressions
Now, this is where the real fun game begins.
#1. Surfacing Technique
The surface technique consists of drawing them out of their cover.
Because you want to remove their cover, and show their true intent.
Such as, you want to show them for the nasty players they are.
You can execute this technique with very simple and neutral questions, such as:
You: What do you mean by that?
You: I don’t get it, why are you saying that?
You: What’s the irony in that joke, I’m missing it
Then, let them explain.
The more they explain and wallow in their nasty microaggression games, the more they expand the thread of their own nastiness.
Exactly what you want.
#2. Show Me The Hand Technique
This technique is similar to surfacing, but higher-power and more assertive.
The name “show me the hand” derives from an Italian expression that well describes the dynamics of some forms of covert and microaggressions.
The expression is “gettare la pietra e nascondere la mano”.
Literally translated is:
Throwing the stone and hiding the hand
That’s exactly what covert-aggressions are about.
So the attitude with this technique is: “if you wanna throw the stone, throw it, but at least have the courage to show me the hand (rather than being a slimy c*nt and hiding)”.
You can start drawing them out with a sentence, but with the body language of expecting an explanation:
You: (turning towards and looking at them, to amp the social pressure) That sounds quite mean (keep looking at them, expecting a justification)
If they pretend not to hear or if they do not reply, you keep insisting: “why did you say that, it sounded mean”.
Or even more direct and higher power:
You: What did you just say?
Then make them repeat or paraphrase.
If they keep hiding their hand, the good old frame-dominance is also an option:
Him: I was just joking man
You: Well, maybe you were just joking, but it sounded mean
Him: Ah come on man, take it easy, don’t overreact
You: When I feel offended I want to know why
This is good if there are people around, where the status stakes are higher.
If it’s just the two of you, you can cut some steps and be more direct.
For example, by requesting more assertiveness:
You: Look, if you wanna tell me something, I appreciate straight talk. I’m here, I’m an honest and respectful guy, there’s no need to hide behind a joke
With the bar chart representation we used so far, this is how these two techniques look like (when well-executed):
The next technique also leverages “thread expansion”:
#3. Give Them Rope
Giving them rope consists of giving them space to be mean.
Not counterattacking, but retreating.
Get more submissive, make yourself an easier target, encourage them to be even more forward.
Why would you ever want to do that?
Strategically, if you got a bigger end in mind.
For example, in certain environments, over-aggression and nastiness could get them kicked out. So you get rid of an enemy.
Example from the movie “Boiler Room”:
Guy 1: (makes a mistake)
Power Scalper: takes advantage of the mistake to push him down (“power-scalping”)
Guy 1: (does not defend, remains silent, allowing for a natural thread expansion)
By remaining silent and taking the full brunt of the aggression, Guy 1 allows the higher power to step in, and get rid of the power scalper.
Giving them rope also works if they are micro-aggressing through bragging and social-climbing using you as a “social peg”.
In that case, you lose little status, but they lose a lot.
Them: Lucio here didn’t know what to do. Unluckily, I wasn’t there
You: Yeah, what would you have done if you were there
Him: If I was there… (now they are bragging, and nobody likes braggarts)
See Power University for a real-life text example.
This technique can also work if they are far higher power than you are, since you lose little status when a higher-powered person is attacking you, but the other team-members might start disliking the nasty boss.
The danger of this technique is losing status: you don’t want people to keep attacking you while you fail to enforce your boundaries.
But… It can work if you have a counter-attack ready:
#3.2. Scorched Earth Technique
Same as giving them rope.
But you do it with a plan of counter-attacking.
Once they are fully extended, you attack back.
#4. Shame Them With Vulnerability
I love this option.
Most people victims of microaggressions focus on attacking back.
But a great technique is to NOT attack back, but to use the power vulnerability.
These are some examples of vulnerability:
You: (pause, look saddened after the microaggression) I feel it’s rude to make fun of me like that
You: When you talk to me like I’m stupid or inferior, I feel hurt
You: I’m shocked you’d say that
See Power University for effective uses of vulnerability.
#4.2. Shame & Take The Judge Role
And of course, a favorite of mine.
You refuse to play the aggression game because it’s beneath you.
Games of microaggressions don’t exactly make for the best friendships and partnerships and, as an enlightened collaborator, you seek better.
So, with this technique, you give them a chance to play at your higher level.
And you do so with “collaborative shaming”, plus a good old judge frame.
See an example here:
Note: this technique requires some pre-existing power
To execute effectively, people should respect you already.
If they do, then I recommend this technique, since it pulls up people to your level.
#5. Ignore With Neutral Statements (One-Crosses)
With this one, you just let the small-time games fly you past.
You don’t submit, but neither do you turn it into a war.
Him: Ahaha you really using a calculator for that? (micro one-upping)
Her: Yeah, why (<- pretends she doesn’t even understand the game)
Him: That’s such an easy calculation, it’s 73
Her: Eheh maybe but I don’t trust you (said with a smile), I’m using a calculator (<- still takes him at face value, thus ignoring the game)
Him: See, it’s 73, it was so easy
Her: Yeah, so easy with the calculator, and I can fully trust it (<- notice the frame of “I don’t trust you though”, which maintains her power)
Then you simply move on.
When they realize you never entertain their small-time games, chances are good they will drop it.
If not, move on to the next technique on this list.
For more on one-crosses:
#6. Go Meta: Explain Their Game
“Going meta” means going to a higher, more general level, and explains what they were doing.
Basically, you explain what you are learning here and, in the case of covert and microaggressions, you explain how their power moves are nasty attempts at gaining power and status.
Him: (walking uphill) Ahaha, you tired already? No more pizza for you (touches her belly)!
Her: You’re doing that so you can feel better about yourself
Her: Yeah, you know, these are all small power moves. You push me down, frame me as “inferior” for having less strength, so you can be or feel superior
Him: No, it was just a joke
Her: Yeah, sure, it was a joke. But a one-upping type of joke.
Imagine if next time we’re doing something I’m good at, I come to you and say “ooh poor you, you have no idea how to do this, do you?” How would you feel?
It’s the same
Then keep on going, and you can turn it into a “collaborative shaming”, such as: “I expect better from you”, and then end up with collaborative framing “we can do better than this”.
More on this in the relationship module.
#7. Reframe It Into A Positive
Him: LOL, good to see Max tonight, it took a free dinner to make him come out (frames you as stingy, a value-taking frame)
You: Yeah man, I am seeking to save indeed (accepts his initial frame, moves from covert to open, the assertive and more leader-like approach). I think it’s important to save and invest in your dreams (reframes into a positive)
Then, you can potentially one-up him back but it’s not necessary:
You: 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.
For more on framing:
#8. “Affectionate Dominance”
With this one, you go both personally higher -ignoring the power move-, and higher dominance -one-upping them at the same time-.
Micro-aggressor: LOL, good to see Max tonight, it took a free dinner to make him came out (frames you as stingy)
You: Ahaha, Matt is being his usual friendly self tonight (pats Max on the back, or points at him looking at the group)
Or a bit more obvious:
You: Ahaha, good to see that Matt is being his usual passive-aggressive self tonight
But I personally wouldn’t go that far as it sounds like butt-hurt criticism.
I talk about this technique in this case study example on how to handle covertly rude people:
#8.2. Go For A Showdown
What if they are aggressing on something that goes to the core of your being?
Then, you must draw your boundaries.
First, make sure you draw them out of their cover, and then insist on your boundaries (“broken record technique”) until they backtrack or apologize.
See “Power University” for more.
#9. Use Sarcasm VS Sarcasm
Much covert aggression is disguised as “joking”.
Of course, that is BS.
Anything value-taking is value-taking, it does not matter how it’s delivered.
Jokes are as value-taking as anything else.
But if they use the “joking excuse” to be value-taking, so can you.
Comedian Leno does it here:
#10. Fight Fire With Fire (Mirror Technique)
Similar as above.
But rather than doing it with humor frames, you take their same approach and either reply back the same, or one-up them.
I used this technique with the initial example of microaggression:
Notice the typical covert-retreat: he was “just joking”. I was a bit over-extended after his retreat. I should have cut out the “bias” part to avoid over-investment.
I only recommend these last two techniques as “short term patches”. I’d rather you go higher than keep scratching with the turkeys.
See more in “Power University”.
Why Mastering Microaggressions
Mastering microaggressions” is extremely important for your social success.
Taken individually, microaggressions are not as damaging as other types of power moves, BUT… They are more frequent.
Think it this way:
- When was the last time someone yelled at your face, told you that you were an idiot, or punched you?
- When was the last time someone laughed at you, made a joke at your expense, or slapped on your back to show “affectionate dominance”?
There you go: microaggressions remove less value, but they happen more commonly.
This is why succumbing to microaggressions is the social equivalent of death by a thousand cuts.
Albeit one cut might not destroy your social status, several of them most certainly will.
But now, you are better equipped not to get scratched by the next micro-aggressor.
This article introduced all the little, “daily small-time power moves” we encounter so often going through life.
We use “microaggressions” as an umbrella term, and we learned that calibration is crucial.
And then we reviewed some advanced techniques to deal with microaggressions, including blowing off their cover to surface their meanness, using vulnerability, or shaming them for their games.