What Public Speakers Need To Know About Microaggressions

According to The Coddling of the American Mind, a recent article in The Atlantic:

Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.

The term microagressions is not new. The phrase was coined in 1970 by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce. Since 1970, the term has continued to grow in meaning.

Sensitivity to microagressions has recently risen to the point that almost any presentation topic could be a potential land mine, especially on college campuses. No longer can public speakers feel confident about their presentation, even if their message steers clear of obviously sensitive topics such as race, religion, politics, and sexuality.

Some college administrators are creating lists of microagressions that should be avoided by educators, students, and guest speakers. The lists are likely surprising to many people because of the historically common phrases that are included. For example, a list recently created by administrators at the 10 University of California system schools, included statements such as: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Even materials that are clearly designed to educate people about microagressions (in an effort to eradicate the damaging expressions) have been criticized for including microagressions.

The list of potentially upsetting topics and phrases is so extensive that Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke, according to The Atlantic.

Tips For Speakers and Professionals

Public speakers who present to students of all ages should immediately review their speaking materials to ensure there are no microagressions hidden in a seemingly innocuous message.

If you happen to accidentally present microagressions in your materials, immediately issue a heartfelt apology, or prepare to deal with the consequences, which could potentially include retaliation by a young mob on social media.

You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

While the growing list of microagressions is currently being discussed mostly at schools, specifically college campuses, the trend of increased sensitivity has the potential to impact all professionals in the near future as recent college graduates begin accepting professional roles.

So, what should you do if you think your communication might harbor hidden microagressions, even after you have carefully reviewed your materials? Currently, trigger warnings are the suggested method for avoiding the problems that can result from microagressions.

Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.

For example, if you are delivering a presentation to a young audience on a topic that might contain microagressions, you definitely need to tell your audience that your presentation could trigger uncomfortable feelings. After delivering your trigger warning, you should also give audience members the option to leave if they are concerned about the microagressions that could potentially be part of your presentation.


Public speakers always need to be aware of the sensitivities of their audience. For better or worse, young audiences are highly sensitive to a long list of topics, ideas, and words.

Before your next presentation, carefully edit your materials and remove any comments that could potentially have a negative impact on your audience members, or start your presentation with a trigger warning to give audience members the opportunity to opt out of your potentially upsetting presentation.

Follow Leslie on Twitter: @LeslieBelknap

For more presentation tips visit Ethos3.com and The Ethos3 Blog.

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