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Everyday Prejudices and Subtle Biases
Does it make sense to talk about “microaggressions” against introverts? Let’s look at the thinking and research associated with this term.
“So your newsletter is about microaggressions against introverts?” asked someone who had seen my one-sentence blurb about Introvert UpThink but hadn’t yet subscribed. Yes and no, I replied. Here is what I meant by that answer.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “microaggressions” are verbal or behavioral slights or insults against someone who does not belong to the dominant group. These offenses are often unintentional and usually based in ignorance or obliviousness rather than outright malice. Scholars came up with the term as a classification for subtle, brief manifestations of racial bias or exclusion and later extended it to cover other contexts, such as sexism, homophobia, disdain for people with disabilities and so on.
Classic examples of microaggressions include:
Confusing two people at work for one another who happen to be Black but have little else in common.
“But where are you really from?” asked of an Asian American person who has made it clear they were born in the USA.
Addressing a woman wearing hospital scrubs as “Nurse” although her name tag says “Dr. ___.”
Someone raising their voice or using simplified vocabulary when speaking to a blind person.
Correspondingly, examples of microaggressions against introverts include:
Being talked over or ignored in settings where outspoken people hog the spotlight
“You’re leaving the party early again? Don’t you know how to have fun?”
Advice to stay away from leadership roles requiring communication with the public because of a “quiet personality”
A social worker referring to someone who happily lives alone as “isolated” or “socially frail”
With that said, if we look separately at the two meaning components in “microaggressions” I can explain why I don’t like this term. “Micro” indicates something that is very small. Although microaggressions typically take place in just a few moments, they can inflict a large amount of harm on recipients, especially when someone suffers many such episodes during a day and over months and years. Studies show that individuals subjected to frequent microaggressions tend to experience lowered self-esteem, increased stress, greater sadness and anger, and more bodily pains, poor sleep and high blood pressure. The prefix “micro” downplays this significant level of harm.
I also find the word “aggression” off target because aggression normally involves conscious hostility or a deliberate intent or threat to harm someone. Sometimes a disrespectful statement, question or action is indeed intended as an attack. But more often, I think it comes from clueless insensitivity. Although perpetrators of microaggressions may not have intended to cause harm, the harm takes place all the same. Even successful coping strategies such as laughing off incidents, educating others, stepping up self-care and bonding with people who share one’s minority identity deplete the energy available for the rest of one’s daily life.
Most everything that has been written on racial, gender and other types of passing indignities has a counterpart for introverts who are often invalidated, misconstrued or discriminated against where extroverts represent what’s normal. Innumerable articles, blog posts and books written in the last ten years describe the confusion, resentment and self-doubt experienced by un-gregarious individuals before they understood their basic nature as introverts. A variation on that theme that I particularly liked was an article written by a woman who watched her low-key son being pressured to act like an extrovert at school and realized that she herself had disparaged introverts at work for “not being able to think on their feet” or being “so quiet that it hurt them.”
In Introvert UpThink I have not mentioned the concept of microaggressions up to now because I feel more specific language tailored to a particular situation tends to be more pertinent and more powerful. And in contrast to some complaints about microaggressions, I have tried to avoid writing in an aggrieved tone or regarding introverts as inert victims of domination or oppression. Instead, in Introvert UpThink I have analyzed and challenged less obvious instances of everyday bias against introverts, especially on the part of experts who have the ability to think critically – but don’t do so in matters of personality. And I have deliberately balanced that effort with articles highlighting interesting success strategies of culturally acclaimed introverts.
If you’re new to Introvert UpThink, I recommend a few past posts that exemplify my approach:
Underlying my efforts is the belief that in the long run, more widespread awareness makes life fairer, easier and happier for introverts and those who care about them. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, “You cannot change what you are not aware of, and once you are aware, you cannot help but change.” Let’s hope so.
And by the way, if you have questions you’d like me to address in Introvert UpThink, feel free to send them to me directly. My email is email@example.com.