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How to Decide Whether to Respond to a Microaggression

When, as a single person, you experience one of those “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults” that are called microaggressions, one of the most important challenges you face is deciding whether to respond.

As in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on the microaggressions of single life, I will draw from Hahna Yoon’s article in the New York Times, “How to respond to microaggressions.” Professor Kevin Nadal of John Jay College is one of the scholars of microaggressions whose work was described in the article. Most importantly, Professor Nadal created a Guide to Responding to Microaggressions, consisting of five questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to respond to a slight.

  1. “If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?”

Suggest to another person that something they said or did was offensive, and it is likely that they will become defensive. My guess is that this is even more likely to be true when the microaggression is about a person’s single status. As I discussed previously, in Part 1, most people do not even know that there is such a thing as singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people, and the discrimination against them). When examples of singlism are pointed out to them – even examples that they have no part in perpetrating – they too often think there’s nothing wrong with them.

Because of this lack of awareness of singlism, some of the most unlikely people practice it. I was surprised and disappointed to find that academic colleagues who thought of themselves as open-minded, and who would not in a million years make a racist or sexist comment, would unselfconsciously and unapologetically engage in singlism. Precisely because they think of themselves as so fair-minded and unprejudiced, they may be especially likely to react defensively when their own singlism is pointed out.

  1. “If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., co-worker, family member, etc.)?

In Part 1, I described the stranger at the social gathering who, upon learning that I was single, suggested that I volunteer to be the leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. I knew that I would probably never see her again, so there would have been few repercussions to calling her out on her singlism.

It is different for people who are part of your life, such as friends, relatives, and coworkers. If you try to engage them in a discussion of some slight they directed your way, and they are annoyed at you for doing so, you will have to keep seeing them again and again.

In a previous post, I described a startlingly singlist remark made by a check-out person at a supermarket. This is a person who would never play an important role in my life. Yet even in that situation, I remember thinking to myself that if I said anything, things could become awkward in the future. Maybe I’d even feel like I needed to avoid her line in the future.

These first two questions point to reasons why you may be tempted to just ignore a microaggression instead of responding to it. The next two underscore reasons why you would want to respond.

3. “If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?”

4. “If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?”

I have dedicated the last several decades of my life to standing up for single people, so questions 3 and 4 really weigh on me. When I let a microaggression pass, I almost always regret it – even when I am painfully aware of why it would have been difficult to do anything different.

Question #4 describes the most obvious cost of not standing up to singlist behavior – the perpetrator will go on thinking that I found nothing objectionable in what they said or did. Another cost is a missed opportunity to do some educating and consciousness-raising.

Question number 5, “If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?”, is one that is unlikely to be relevant to microaggressions directed at single people. Maybe if you are interacting with a particularly volatile person, then challenging a microaggression will set them off. That would probably be true of any microaggression, and not just those relevant to a person’s status as a single person.

In the fourth and final post in this series on microaggressions, I’ll discuss possible ways of responding to microaggressions that, hopefully, will not make the perpetrators feel too defensive. (Here it is.)

How to Decide Whether to Respond to a Microaggression

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). How to Decide Whether to Respond to a Microaggression. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2020
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