One of the unexpected obligations as a lecturer in law at a major university is that I must participate in harassment prevention training. One topic caught my attention although it was barely mentioned: micro-affirmations.

Digging deeper into this topic on my own, I discovered the concept of micro inequities which is a form of unconscious or implicit bias. Mary Rowe, an economist and conflict management consultant at the MIT Sloan School of Management (“Rowe”) defined micro-inequities in 1973 as:

“… apparently small events which are ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be different.”

They are mini-messages that have a huge impact, conveying quite subtlety whether and how much or little a person is appreciated, valued or thought about. (What’s in a Micro-Message). Such messages may include “… a nod of the head, an insincere smile, a sideways glance, and the tone and inflection of your voice.” (Id.) They can include a “… weak handshake with little or no eye contact, listening with my arms closed across my chest, …. Pecking away at my cell phone/ other device while someone is talking to me…. Looking at my watch while someone is talking to me; typing away while someone is talking to me…. hovering over someone in a controlling or menacing way.”(Id.)

These micro-inequities can take two forms: micro-aggression and micro-affirmations. Micro aggressions have been defined as:

“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group. (Sue, 2010.p.5)”
( Micro-aggressions & Micro-affirmations—Unconscious actions and implicit bias by Emelyn A. dela Pena, Ed.D. PowerPoint at p.5) (January 2015) (“PPT”)

Examples include referring to a male supervisor as “Mr.” or some other title while referring to a female supervisor by her first name or incorrect title; asking a multiracial person “What are you?”; avoiding eye contact or physical contact with a person who has a disability; consistently calling someone by the wrong gender pronoun; or assuming everyone in your group can afford a luxury or extravagance. (Id. at p. 8.)

Micro-affirmations, on the other hand, are “… small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious, but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.” (Rowe at p. 4.)

Examples include, “acknowledging that a micro-aggression may have occurred, visibly confronting inequitable, hostile, or biased behavior, stopping to ask for someone’s opinion or contribution who has not had a chance to speak…”(PPT. at p. 13.)

In sum, as Professor Rowe explains:

Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure at the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack. Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness. (Rowe at 4.)

As a mediator, I find this topic intriguing because it highlights how significant are the little things we do or don’t do, how important our unconscious, unintentional acts may be and what a difference they may make. I have always said that a lot of litigation arises due to a lack of communication or miscommunication. Just think how much we are communicating through micro-inequities, and we are not even aware that we are sending such messages! And… just think how much we can accomplish through micro-affirmations also known as random acts of kindness!

…. Just something to think about.


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