Saturday, May 19, 2012


I read an interesting article awhile back about micro-messages, a term coined in 1973. MM are two thousand to four thousand subtle, non-verbal signals that we send every day, which are automatic and almost invisible. Or hardly detectable, anyway. Nods, sighs, shrugs, grins, grimaces, eye rolls, doodling, eyes drifting, finger tapping or snapping, head whipping...all these are MM, which are either positive or negative.

Micro messages can be praised, supported, judged, goaded, adored, dismissed or ignored.

A micro-perp is what you'd call someone who exploits their power, like bosses who look at their email while you are talking to them. Or who gaze at their computer instead of being engaged in the conversation. Or doctors who ignore you and speak directly to your spouse. Or clerks who are polite but never look you in the eye. A final example of a micro-perp would be a friend who begins an apology by saying, "If that hurt your feelings..."

A micro-victim is simply the person on the receiving end. The student who, after never being called upon, stops raising his hand in class. A junior executive whose ideas are dismissed with a wave of a hand and a "we've tried that before," or  "anything else?" A woman who answers the door to a salesman asking if the lady of the house is at home. Words don't convey the essence of what we mean like micro-messages do. They make our feelings and messages crystal clear.

Roots of the micro-message are assumptions we make about our place in the world, our position in the social hierarchy, certain beliefs about individuals and groups -- pre-conceived notions about race, gender, ethnicity -- all filters - someone with hard-wired beliefs will support his way of thinking. Thus, my filters can distort your performance.

Most students learn by 2nd or 3rd grade if they are deemed dull or bright. Those perceived as dull begin to meet those 'expectations' of themselves. If someone you are talking to becomes inattentive, you'll grow angry, or frustrated, nervous, you might ramble or feel invisible, or you might be polite but cool towards them. You may sense what's going on and still be duped and end up faltering in conversation. It takes skill to keep someone engaged, just as it is a skill to be an active listener.

Some people intuitively confer micro-affirmations by engaging people, ignoring race or ethnicity, and bringing out the best in people, eliciting trust and loyalty.

Insensitivities result from an imbalance of power between two people. Everyone has been on both sides of this equation. Micro-inequities apply to everyone. Playing favorites, forgetting someone's name repeatedly, not paying attention, not remaining focused on someone's presentation...are examples of this.

A leader can change the entire tone of a room just through micro-messages such as facial expression, neutral comments, eye contact, active listening, etc. Silences can be loaded.

In short, micro-messages get to the DNA of culture change without saying a word. I'm thinking a lot of this is how we communicate with babies and animals. Any thoughts?


Ms. A said...

I know a lot about micro messages, even though I didn't realize that's what they were called. I'm on the receiving end of them, all the time. Hubby can't carry on a conversation without sending me micro messages, that let me know he isn't the least bit interested in what I'm saying. He's been doing it for so long, I don't bother to try to converse anymore.

Arkansas Patti said...

Really interesting post. I guess we are all guilty, conscious or not, of displaying the negative ones. It should be a goal to strive for the positive ones. What a difference we could make.

ReformingGeek said...

I think it would make a big difference if we actually paid attention in life. I'm definitely guilty of eye-rolling, staring off into space, and focusing on my computer screen.

But I do remember some of the most hurtful things in life did not come from words but from the body language during interactions with others.


Ami said...

That's fascinating. I had never heard the term before, either, although I've certainly had people do things to dismiss me, and I know I've done things to dismiss others.

As soon as I can get the damn printer hooked back up, I am printing out this post and hanging it up in my back room at work.

To remind me how important my attention to 'my' kids really is.

Norma Beishir said...

I agree with Ami. This is indeed fascinating. I'd never heard of it before, either.

I'm starting to feel self-conscious....

Peruby said...

I am with Ami and Norma B. You have provided a great service in bringing this matter up.

I will probably be a lot more aware of the MMs I am sending out.

Dame Nuisance said...

I think they are detectable but we are not always conscious of them. Our subconscious, however, does take note ... and we respond accordingly.

Susan in the Boonies said...

That's a lot of words to describe a form of communication that occurs without words, yet is intuitively understood by almost everyone.

Ugochi said...

This is serious exposition on communication for me. I pray to work on my communication so I will not hurt anyone. Thanks for sharing. Visiting from SITS-Teshuva.
Have a wisdom full weekend!

misssrobin said...

Nice examination of the subject. When I first heard of these they were called meta-messages. And, yes, they are sometimes much louder than the actual words we use.

I used to get frustrated because my husband didn't seem very good at listening to me. Turns out he has OCD and ADD, both of which can be very distracting. Some days he listens well. Others, not more than a few words. Learning this helped me no longer see a message that wasn't really there.

Nice post.

Stopping by from SITS. Have a great weekend.