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Sometimes an Apology Doesn’t Make Things Right

Reading time: longer than usual.

I’ve been writing about the adjustments needed for going back to working in offices. Some of the difficulties we were spared by working at home concern working conditions.  

At home we have more control over our time and schedules as well as where we work. We aren’t limited to just one desk in one space. A comfortable chair in the garden makes any reading easier.

Other more serious problems, though, arise from the behaviors of the people we work with like microaggressions and bullying rather than our working conditions. We got used to working without the tension of having to guard against the surprise of unwanted behaviors, but now we have to be prepared for them all over again. 

A reader asked me to write something specifically about dealing with bullies when we go back to work, so here is my take on these situations.

Please note: I am not a psychologist or therapist, so this material is based on my personal experience and the experiences of the teams or executives I have worked with. If you are the target of these behaviors, especially if you are at the I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do stage, talking to a friend or colleague, to a manager or HR representative, or to a therapist can help. Think of the safest person to talk to, and don’t stay quiet. These aggressions eat away at you.

I’m really interested in hearing about your experiences and how you handled them. We need examples of the results from what we tried so we can expand our options and know what to avoid. 

Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you

* * * One day, four of us, good friends, were having lunch and laughing in the cafeteria when the fellow in our group responded in mock anger to something that was said. He waved his hand back and forth as if he were slapping someone across the face. 

At the same time he made a sound that was often used with that gesture—Wop! Wop!

One of the other women and I looked at each other for a split second, and then, silently agreeing not to say anything, laughed again. 

She and I came from Italian families. That fellow had no idea that “Wop” is a slur referring to Italians. We knew him well enough to know there was no malice intended so we weren’t offended and said nothing. He never used the word again.

This exchange happened long before the word “micro-aggression” was available, so we couldn’t name what happened. Slurs were common if different then. I won’t use them here as examples. We just chalked it up to somebody being a jerk.

But what is a micro-aggression? The term is now common in our language but maybe not clearly understood. Here’s what I found in a dictionary and in wikipedia.

  • a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
  • subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group such as a racial minority

For me, the key elements are first, that the behavior or language is prejudiced and can be considered insulting to or dismissive of an aspect of that person’s self-identity. Second, the insult is often unintentional and unconscious. 

Essentially, it’s a disquieting mistake. We’re not talking about openly racist, religious, or sexist comments here, but of exchanges during a typical day, like the one in the cafeteria, that surprise us with an unintentional but hurtful comment.

My colleague and I weren’t offended that day so we didn’t need to respond in anger, but maybe one of us should have asked a question like, “Did you know that word is a slur to Italians?” He would have responded with concern and an apology. Turning the accusation of inappropriate language into a question to determine whether the speaker knows it was inappropriate may be an easy tactic to remember in case we go into brain freeze and become quite literally speech-less when it happens.

Because this behavior is unintentional, trying to explain why it hurts is difficult. It can bring accusations of being thin-skinned or not having a sense of humor, another insult instead of an apology. In addition, others may think the comments or exchanges, however testy, are an inside joke and want in on it, so they repeat the behavior and add to the insult. When that happened to me, I responded in frustration: “Not you, too!” Luckily this fellow recognized that something was wrong and apologized quickly. When we met and talked it out, he understood the context of my response and changed his behavior. 

And that is why some people would rather work from home than go back to unfunny jokes and mean asides we shouldn’t have had to tolerate in the first place. Work’s no fun with colleagues like these.

It’s hard to know what to do or what an appropriate response is in the moment. Do we challenge the behavior? That’s attractive, but dangerous. Will we get our comments right or escalate the situation? Will we face retaliation? 

How do we explain a microaggression that someone doesn’t even know was made? How do we ask someone to stop a behavior they didn’t know was disrespectful or unkind? How do we get others to take us seriously, to respect our feelings and maybe even learn about a behavior they might want to stop? 

It’s not easy. We have to get past our own hurt before we can look more broadly at the dynamic.

Sometimes we’ll get an apology, but an apology however sincere, doesn’t always make things right. If we’re lucky, talking it over with the other person clears the air and helps them understand why the comment is insulting or inappropriate. And at least that’s a start toward change.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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