What do all these examples have in common?
- Getting asked questions such as “Why are you still single?” or “Just one?”
- Getting invited by couples to lunch but not dinner, outings on weekdays but not weekends, kids’ birthday parties but not movies with grown-ups.
- Getting assigned to the kids table at Thanksgiving, the singles table at weddings, or the couch in the living room instead of a bedroom with a door that shuts.
They are all among the countless everyday slights that are pervasive in the lives of single people. I chose those examples because they are recognizable. But single people all have their own unique experiences. For example, at a social event, a perfect stranger approached me and said, “You’re single? My daughter’s Girl Scout troop needs a new leader. You’d be perfect!”
When I first started paying attention to these slights several decades ago, I did not realize there was a name for them. It is “microaggressions.” (They are part of the broader category I call “singlism,” which also includes more serious instances of the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people and the discrimination against them.)
I have been writing about the microaggressions of single life for many years. Sometimes I respond to the people who perpetrate them. But each time I do, I hold my breath, because I know I am at risk for getting pummeled for taking the small stuff seriously.
“How to respond to microaggressions,” an article by Hahna Yoon in the New York Times, provides a terrific, thoughtful discussion of the many considerations involved in deciding what to do (or not do) when you are the target of microaggressions. I’m going to draw from her article repeatedly in the series of posts I’m going to write on this topic.
In a way, though, I’m on my own. It is rarely recognized that single people are targets of microaggressions. Yoon, for instance, said:
“Microaggressions are often discussed in a racial context, but anyone in a marginalized group — be it as a result of their gender, sexual orientation, disability or religion — can experience one.”
Marital status or relationship status did not get mentioned. Neither did the status often confused with marital status – parental status.
What are microaggressions?
Referring to a book on microaggressions by Professor Derald Wing Sue, Yoon defines microaggressions as:
“the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of marginalized groups experience in their day-to-day interactions with individuals who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way.”
Two points are important. First, these are relatively minor infractions – hence, the “micro” part of microaggressions. Second, the people responsible for the microaggressions often do not realize that there is anything wrong with what they did or said.
Even when infractions are serious, people don’t recognize them as illegitimate when they happen to single people
When it comes to the familiar territories such as race and gender, people at least realize that the broader, more serious category of offences exists. They know there is such a thing as racism and sexism. The same is not true of singlism. Most people have never heard of it. When a blatant example is described, they think it is justified.
My colleagues and I documented this in the domain of housing discrimination. Told about a landlord who rented to a white person, even though a black person offered to pay more, people called it what it was – discrimination. They said it was illegitimate. They did the same when a landlord rented to a man when a woman offered to pay more, or a heterosexual when a lesbian or gay man offered to pay more, or a thin person when an obese person offered to pay more.
When a landlord rented to a married person when the single person offered to pay more, though, people mostly thought that was fine. When we asked why the landlord chose the married person, participants rarely gave the same answer they gave when asked about the other decisions, that the landlord was prejudiced and was practicing discrimination. Instead, they most often said that the landlord favored the married person because the person was married – as if that in itself was a sufficient explanation.