October 7, 2021

Dear Cockrell School Students, Faculty and Staff,

Remember that 10-minute conversation you had earlier today with a friend or colleague? Chances are, you inadvertently sent at least 40 micromessages to that person during the course of your chat. Micromessaging refers to the small, subtle and often unconscious messages we send to others as we communicate. We express frustration with our tone of voice or a subtle sigh. We convey interest by physically leaning into a conversation. We slip in seemingly benign words that can change how a communication is received. (I personally struggle with unconsciously adding the word “actually,” as in, “That’s actually a good idea.” I don’t intend to convey surprise that someone actually managed to come up with a good idea, but I understand that it’s easy to interpret this way.) Even the environment in which a communication occurs can contribute to micromessaging: Consider pointing out to a peer that they forgot to respond to an assigned task. Whether you do it privately or in front of a group can make a big difference in how it is received.

We all use micromessaging in many forms in our everyday lives, both consciously and unconsciously, and both verbally and nonverbally. And micromessaging, when negative and differentially directed at people because of their identities, can be particularly harmful, especially when experienced repeatedly over time. Micro-inequities, a term coined in 1973 by MIT’s Mary Rowe, are “apparently small events which are often 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.’”

In The DNA of Culture Change, Joyce Tucker observed that institutions have focused primarily on the highly visible and undeniable forms of discrimination and offensive behaviors, to the point that we “have done great work at controlling the few elephants, while being overrun by a phalanx of ants.” However, combating micro-inequities is crucial to developing inclusive environments, especially since research has shown that experiencing them is negatively associated with mental health and well-being, particularly when such slights are experienced in educational settings or the workplace.

Micro-inequities are often a reflection of our unconscious biases. These unconscious biases are social stereotypes that we hold about individuals based on their identities, are outside of our explicit awareness (they are “unconscious”), and often contradict our conscious values. This is what makes micro-inequities so hard to recognize in our own communications. Further, while the giver of a micro-inequity rarely intends to hurt anyone, the impact often differs significantly from the intent.

So what are we to do? While people have studied these micromessages, the science is inconclusive. But I offer two suggestions drawn from best practices: one is reactive and one is proactive.

First, practice recognizing micro-inequities and drawing others’ attention to them. This is easier said than done, and it’s particularly difficult if you’re the recipient of the micro-inequity. Whether you’re drawing attention as the recipient or as a bystander, try to do it with compassion and grace. Assume that the offender didn’t mean offense and is most likely not aware of the negative impact of their communication. A good approach is to “call people in” to a conversation about inclusion, rather than “calling them out.” Open a dialog about the potential for hurt, and validate others’ reactions to what happened. And when you’re called-in in this way, try to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to become defensive. Listen to what’s said, apologize (sincerely) and reflect. As difficult as it may be, try not to make it about you, and avoid suggesting that the other person is overreacting.

Second, Rowe suggests a more direct approach that actively combats micro-inequities using micro-affirmations, “apparently 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.” Micro-affirmations are the foundation of highly successful mentoring, have been shown to be “contagious,” and are something we can practice intentionally. Micro-affirmations can come directly (e.g., recognizing others’ efforts, intentionally using someone’s name and pronouns correctly, smiling at someone in the hallway) and indirectly (e.g., giving credit for ideas or work, even if the recipient of the credit is not present).

So let’s take this as an easy action for this month — let’s pledge to try to use one intentional micro-affirmation per day, and try to be more cognizant of the micro-aggressions we may be using, regardless of intent.


Christine Julien Signature

Christine Julien
Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Cockrell School of Engineering

Some Other Terms

This term is commonly used and is often interchangeable with micro-inequity, defined above. While it retains the “micro” component, which conveys subtlety and hard-to-prove aspects, several have argued that the term “aggression” may connote conscious intent. This may distract from the often unconscious nature of these communications.

These terms maintain the subtlety of micro-inequity and micro-affirmation but add in the requirement that there be a comparison of treatment of two parties.

This term draws its origin from a 1940s film. It originally referred to techniques used to intentionally manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity but is now used more colloquially to refer to actions by one person that cause another to question their reality. In the context of micro-inequities, responses that imply that someone is overreacting or seeing things that aren’t happening is a form of gaslighting.