Micro-Messages: What Are They and How Can You Benefit from Being Aware of Them?

By now, it is relatively safe to say that we are all aware of the subtle messages that body language can send. It is also safe to say that most adults know that their perceptions may not be in line with another's. Still, our individual filters are what we tend to rely on. The problem with that, though, is that there can be a vast difference between what is said or done and what we communicate. From our perspective, we may think we said and did all the right things. We may never be aware of any adverse reactions. But those negative results can damage relationships and the more often they occur, the more damage also occurs.

However, there is a lot to be learned from experts in the field, such as why it happens and how to avoid it. Dr. Mary Rowe, Adjunct Professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management and Ombudsperson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been studying the anomaly of micro-messages for over forty years. She first stumbled upon the negative side of these unique messages while developing her theory about the positive messages.

Stephen Young, the senior partner of Insight Education Systems, is also a leader in the field. He and his firm specialize in leadership and organizational development. In that respect, micro-messages have a powerful impact on a professional environment. Negative micro-messages, or micro-inequities, lower productivity and satisfaction rates. Conversely, positive micro-messages, micro-affirmations, bring out the best in others and improve satisfaction and performance. Though Dr. Rowe and Mr. Young place their focus in the work and academic fields, the lessons learned have the potential to cover a lot more ground.


Look at the image above. . .

Which line do you think is longer?

See results without voting

Think about, for instance, the doctor-patient relationship, the student-teacher relationship, or the employee-consumer relationship and, as you read further, consider what other areas of your life these theories might be useful in applying. By becoming aware of the kinds of micro-messages we are sending out, we can all become better leaders as well as better communicators.

Also, before reading any further, please take a moment to participate in the poll to the right. It will be discussed shortly.

Terms to Know

Micro-messages - Micro-messages are subtle messages sent to others, often through means other than verbal communication. They may or may not be different than the messages the sender thinks is communicated.

Micro-affirmations - According to Dr. Rowe, micro-affirmations are "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 succeed." [1]

Micro-inequities (also known as micro-aggressions)- Dr. Rowe describes micro-inequities as "hard to prove events, which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be different."[1]

About Micro-Affirmations

Think about the ways in which people have made you feel valued - as a friend, as a colleague, or maybe as a customer. Many of those ways were not through words themselves. For instance, eye contact lets you know that you are valued and that what you have to say is important to the person listening. A head nod or a smile of approval can go just as far as verbally acknowledging a good idea. These little things get noticed in private as well as in public.

One such example of a noticeable micro-affirmation is one in which Stephen Young provides. He recalls a manager that he used to work with often introducing him by telling others to "watch out for this guy; he's trouble." Though the word choice might not have been the most appropriate, the tone of his voice and the friendly slap on the shoulder made it clear to everyone around that Stephen was a part of his boss's inner circle. His boss obviously did not believe that he was a bad seed, but rather thought highly of him.

While it may seem inconsequential, teasing indicates quite a bit about how one person feels toward another. Teasing can be a form of exclusion and bullying, or it can indicate a great fondness toward someone. Other such micro-affirmations and micro-inequities do the same thing. Consider giving full attention versus distractedly looking at a watch or texting while talking to someone else. Or think about online communication, especially in groups. Think about well thought out comments that may include small talk versus short and terse comments addressing someone else and think about skipping over a few remarks in favor of replying to others first. These little acts carry quite a bit of weight and are indeed consequential.

Why Do Micro-Inequities Occur?

We have all likely been guilty of doing it to someone else and have also probably had it happen to us. As Dr. Rowe explained, micro-inequities occur wherever differences are. They can also happen whenever differences are perceived. They are most often thought about in the context of distinct differences, most present wherever marginalized groups of individuals are present. However, the differences need not be so noticeable.

Remember the poll above? What was your answer? Most will answer that both of the lines are the same length. They are not. The top one is longer. However, when answering the question, people tend to go with the expected answer. We expect that this is the same question as the psychology illusion, which points out that the brain only imagines the top one is longer because of the way the arrow points. Either that or we assume that the image is a trick question and answering that they are the same length will somehow outsmart the trap. It is only natural to think that something seen before must be as expected now. But, as you have just learned, that is not always the case.

Nonetheless, because we tend to base things on past assumptions and experiences, we may inadvertently assume things about someone else. These expectations manifest themselves in ways so subtle within the mind that the offending party may not even realize it is happening. They usually occur as a result of assumptions made about things like a person's age, race, appearance, sexual orientation, or gender.

Why Are Micro-Inequities So Damaging?

The person that is offended may walk away from a meeting and feel marginalized for some apparently inexplicable reason that is hard to pinpoint. The perpetrator is unaware of acting in any offensive manner. The acts are so slight and seemingly insignificant that others are often unaware of them as well. Because of this, talking about the incidents is difficult at best. Even if others are aware of the slights, they are often attributed to something akin to bad manners or simply as poor judgment. It is easy to dismiss the offended's observances as paranoia and insecurities, something to just get over and that should not have been taken personally in the first place. The feelings are labeled valid, further damaging relationships.

Addressing these feelings with the perpetrator is even harder than speaking about them with peers. Though peers offer excuses for the behavior, the perpetrator just becomes defensive. The offenses were, after all, not intended to have that effect, and a defensive person is reluctant to accept any responsibility for another's reaction to his or her actions, usually assuming that the offended person is simply overly sensitive. But, since when is it ever okay to hurt the feelings of another, to make another feel less valued, or that expressing these feelings undermines the validity of a relationship - whether or not it was a conscious and intentional slight?

Even if it was okay, the fact remains that since these things are both hard to prove and hard to talk about, there is not likely to be an easy solution. Dismissing one or two incidents might be easy, but after some time it becomes difficult to overlook. Often, the solution is found in the termination of a relationship. Employees find a different place to work where they feel more valued and usually perform at higher levels. Customers find another place to shop where they feel more welcome. And in the context of academics, hopefully, a student finds a more suitable mentor to encourage success.

How Do You Avoid Micro-Inequities?

There may never be a way to avoid micro-inequities altogether, but there are ways in which to marginalize them instead of allowing someone else to feel marginalized. The first step in making that happen is becoming aware of the fact that they can and do happen. The second step is realizing that no one is immune to sending micro-aggressive messages or to receiving them. Third, try to do your part in sending out micro-affirmative messages to those around you.

It does not take much. A simple "job well done" comment to a colleague after a presentation provides a sincere sense of appreciation. Do not greet one person more enthusiastically than another. Do not exclude those who should be a part of a conversation or meeting. Little things make a huge difference. The micro-affirmations do not have to come from persons of power. Peers on the same level can also provide them.

Additionally, according to Anna Giraldo-Kerr, micro-affirmations have the potential to reverse the effects of micro-inequities[2] because a person cannot create an inequity while affirming someone else. Plus, affirmations have a snowball effect that tends to make others let go of any effects micro-inequities have had much more easily. Lastly, "witnessing small, appreciative acts allows others to see its effects and invites them to replicate these, influencing their behavior and possibly their environment." [2]


Just in Case. . .

Just in case you doubted, the diagram to the right is the same one you voted on above. The only difference is that a red box is included in this one to show that the bottom line is indeed shorter than the top one. Notice how its points do not reach the bottom corners and the top ones do?

1. http://ombud.mit.edu/sites/default/files/documents/micro-affirm-ineq.pdf

2. http://www.colormagazineusa.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=369:micro-affirmations

© 2015 Shannon

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Comments 32 comments

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Very interesting read Shanmarie. Micromessaging can certainly affect how we communicate.

ImKarn23 profile image

ImKarn23 2 years ago

Unique topic Shannon. Well done!

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

I am a huge believer in being aware of such things. Great article, I learned a lot here.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Jodah. It certainly can. People at a meeting, for instance, that contribute ideas only to be overlooked in favor of someone else who said basically the same thing will suddenly become disengaged.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Leslie. I suppose that it is a unique topic! I searched for it in the HP search bar and didn't find anything.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hi Eric! You read my mind. I was thinking that I need to visit your corner of hubland sooner rather than later and then here you are. Yes, it is good to be aware of these things. Plus, psychological and human behavior are just fascinating.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

Shanmarie, this is a very-very interesting hub about micro-messaging. In layman terms we used to speak about 'vibes' and 'body language'.

We really don't realize how much we communicate verbally and even in writing via micro messages.

Voted up, interesting, informative and brilliant!

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Yes, Martie, it is much the same thing as a vibe or a message sent through body language. It may not even be body language or words themselves, but differences in treatment. A boss joking with some people around him but only creating polite small talk with othes, for instance. It's not things people are usually aware of doing, unlike being passive aggressive. But, we really do communicate via these micro-messages more often than we realize. We just usually cannot talk about them without making a big mess because it feels more like an attack or accusation to the person sending them and the person receiving them is often unsure whether or not they are being overly sensitive.

Thank you so much for sharing this article with others and for finding interest in it!

PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Hello Shanmarie, I like how you've modernized this concept. The video of "Little Things Mean a Lot" was so familiar in the way the boss talked over the woman who was presenting when he walked in and the way they discounted the older gentleman who had reams of experience. You could tell his favorites by his responses to each of the employees. Boy, have I ever been in those meetings.

Pertaining to our written communications, I found this statement interesting, "Think about well thought out comments that may include small talk verses short and/or terse comments addressing someone else, maybe even skipping over some comments in favor of replying to others first. These small acts actually carry quite a bit of weight and are indeed consequential." Sometimes it is not difficult to see the importance of our input to the author or the opposite based on their response and also if they respond individually or to a group makes a statement about their communication nuances.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hello, PegCole! Thank you so much for stopping by and for commenting to let me know you did.

It is as Martie says, vibes are not just a modern notion. However, micro-messsges are more than body language alone, which is why they are so hard to prove and to talk about.

And, yes, here on HP, sometimes it is not difficult at all to notice those things. Of course, there are other factors in situations like this such as time limitations and a short comment may not require a lenghty reply. Still, when the negative messages are sent often enough, they become harder to dismiss as nothing personal.

Thankfully, though, we can try not to send those messages by being aware that we might be doing it.

MsDora profile image

MsDora 2 years ago from The Caribbean

"Sending out micro-affirmative messages" sounds like a good habit to develop for the New Year. Thanks for this informative article and helpful instructions.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Absolutely, MsDora! If we focus on the affirmative, we will be likely to send out less negative ones.

Also, it might be helpful if we try not to take such offense if someone brings negative messages we sent to our attention.

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 2 years ago from TEXAS

I think you've got it!

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Maybe so, Nellieanna, but then what?

Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image

Jo_Goldsmith11 2 years ago

This is just amazing to read! You have put much time and research into this. I thank you much as I have learned something. Interesting how

sometimes, what we say or the ways in which we say them, can come across as hurtful, disrespectful or alienating a person.

A well deserved vote up +++ and shared, tweet. Blessings for you this Sunday and a creative week ahead! :-)

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you, sweet Jo! I did put time and research into it. One, because I find interpersonal relationships, behavior, cognition, and psychology to be fascinating. Two, I identified with this message on a very personal level when I first learned of it. It drove me to find out more about it. Once I did, how could I not share it with others?

It particularly interested me that these messages can be communicated by things other than body language, voice tone, and the words themselves. It leaves the recipient baffled and trying to figure out why the feelings are there when things on the surface seem to be just fine. To me, much of it was like feeling left out but not really knowing why. And I realized that these micro-messages do not just occur in professional settings but among friends and family as well. It isn't always what is said, but what is unsaid.

Unfortunately, whenever micro-inequities are present, they are extremely hard to overcome. I also learned that attempting to address them is a disaster in the making. There is no easy way to do it without causing further damage to a relationship. Even after the fact, I have no idea why I tried. The end result seems to be the same, only worse. However, at least I now understand more about some of what happened and that somehow is reassuring.

Thank you so much for your support, friend. You've been such an encouragment. So glad to have met you!

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 2 years ago from TEXAS

Then what sounds like another valuable hub!

Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

Wow, Shan, how interesting. I never heard it called this before. But I do know, when we are texting, emailing and even commenting here, we are missing out on the tone of what is being said, and not seeing body language or eye contact to confirm what we believe is being meant through the communication.

You have done a lot of research here and it shows. Well done!

Up +++ tweeting, pinning and sharing


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you, Nellieanna.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Good point, Theresa. I try not to infer a negative connotation or intonation where there may be none, but even in writing, when communication patterns change, something may be off. It is especially noticeable by comparing if the patterns have changed in general or just with a selected person.

Hugs, my friend!

whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 2 years ago from United States

This is interesting my friend, So much more to language than that spoken. Well done.whonu

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Very true, whonu. Thanks for stopping by.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Very interesting article. I'm sure that people who are sending negative micromessages often don't consciously realize they are doing so. On the other hand, there are are also many times when we attempt to frame our words so as not to offend, but underneath are aware of negative feelings we are trying to hide.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Yes, Ron. It's often more noticeable that those negative feelings are there than we think, even with all of the right words. Sometimes just being indifferent is considered negative, too. Thank you for stopping by to read and to comment.

marcoujor profile image

marcoujor 2 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

Well- detailed and interpreted...so interesting and the chain of comments is most thought provoking as well.

Excellent work - voted UP and UABI and sharing. Love and hugs, Maria

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thank you, Maria! I've noticed that about many who comment on hubs. The comments are often interesting and thought-provoking too! Hugs and much love back at ya!

Steel Engineer profile image

Steel Engineer 2 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine

In modern American culture, the individual is heavily promoted. A lot of what is described here is really arrogance. I have seen these things Rowe is calling micro inequities. Much of the time, these are really misunderstandings; more often than not, people receive an insult when none was intended or delivered.

Cyndi10 profile image

Cyndi10 2 years ago from Georgia

Very interesting read. I'm not familiar with the term micro-messaging, but certainly familiar with its effects. There is so much subtle messaging when we communicate with others, it is good to be aware of what we may leave a conversation or meeting with and why it made us feel that way. Marketing professionals use this all the time. Voted up and interesting.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hi, Steel Engineer. Thank you for visiting and for commenting. I see your point. I do think that the individual is overly promoted in Western society. I think you also somewhat proved the point I was making. Most of what is described is actually dismissed by others as arrogance, rudeness, or general bad manners. However, it isn't always the case. Even people with the best of intentions can unintentionally offend someone else.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hi Cyndi! Yes, I easily see how marketing professionals rely on the subtle messages of others. Really, I think we all do it and just don't realize it. Sometimes we even misinterpret the subtle messages sent by others. Other times, the core feelings truly are unwittingly being revealed. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

I like the research that you've invested in this. We can learn so much about behavior by reading between the lines. People will tell you what they think about you if you listen to them (verbally or nonverbally)

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Yes, people do tell us what they think about us. Sometimes that changes. And, of course, sometimes they are not telling us anything about us at all when we think it is about us. I'm by no means saying that every single perceived slight is intentional and should be perceived as such or even as an indirect slight. But, in general, we get those 'vibes', as Martie called them, and we know by paying attention.

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