It happened again. You got pelted with a microaggression. You thought about the meaning behind it, considered the costs and benefits of responding, and now you have come down on the side of saying something to the aggressor. But how do you do that in a way that is educational and not off-putting? How can you get the person to think in a more enlightened way and not just respond defensively?
Hahna Yoon, in her New York Times article about microaggressions, pointed readers to a guide written by Diane Goodman, a diversity and social justice consultant. Her document consists of a series of 15 different approaches you can take, complete with a sample wording for each, in responding to someone who has targeted you with a microaggression.
Here are some of her examples:
Ask for more clarification: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” “How have you come to think that?”
Pretend you don’t understand: As people try to explain their comments, they often realize how silly they sound. “I don’t get it…” “Why is that funny?”
Challenge the stereotype: Give information, share your own experience and/or offer alternative perspectives. “Actually, in my experience______.” “I think that’s a stereotype. I’ve learned that______.” “Another way to look at it is____________.”
Asking for clarification is a straightforward way to respond to the ubiquitous “why are you still single” microaggression. For example, you could reply with your own question, such as “why do you ask?”.
Pretending that you don’t understand also works as a way of dealing with the question of why you are still single. For example: “Your question makes it sound like there is something wrong with being single. Is there?”
Challenging the stereotype is one of my favorite approaches, since I have spent several decades of my professional life debunking stereotypes about single people. An example that has stuck with me is from 2016, when Taiwan elected a single woman, Tsai Ing-wen, as President. A Chinese military official did not approve, saying that because the newly elected president was single, her strategies were likely to be “emotional, personal and extreme.” The people of Taiwan were not going to put up with that. They took to social media to challenge that bigoted perspective. One person, for example, said, “Many women abroad admire Ms. Tsai’s tenacity and drive, especially the fact she is strong and independent and does not need a man to rule.”
The singlism I experienced in the supermarket, which I described previously, is another example. Referring to a coworker, the person scanning my groceries said that she had no reason to be stressed because “She has no husband, no kids. She has nothing!” I could have told her that “I, too, have no husband and no kids. But I have never felt that I have nothing. In fact, I think I lead a very meaningful life, full of friends, relatives, and work that I love, and on top of that, I get to live in a spectacularly beautiful part of the country. That doesn’t mean I have no stress in my life. I don’t think anyone’s life is stress free. We all deal with life’s challenges, from the small stuff such as plumbing problems, to the devastating things, such as the death of people we love.”
Okay, so that would be a lot to say in a check-out line, but you get the point.
I’ll end with one last point. Microaggressions are “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults.” They are minor infractions, hence the “micro” of “microaggressions.” But that doesn’t mean that single people do not experience very serious forms of singlism as well – instances of bias, bigotry, and discrimination that can even be life-threatening. They do, as I have explained elsewhere.