Controlling The Frame

Framing is a concept coined and studied by Dr. Deborah Tannen. The frame of an interaction or conversation can be thought of as the story we tell about what kind of interaction or conversation we're having. We behave according to how we are framing the conversation. If we are being taught, we studiously listen, but if we're being attacked, we defend ourselves against accusations.[1-3]

Often, perpetrators of microaggressions (and regular aggressions) will reframe their actions as more benign kinds of interactions. Sexual harassment can be reframed as "just a joke." Catcalling can be reframed as "a compliment." Excluding transgender women from a space can be reframed as "trying to make everyone comfortable." An attempt to advocate for your own respect, no mater how polite you are being, can be reframed as "an attack on the right to free speech."[4]

If you decide to confront someone about a microaggression, it's important to make sure you are the one in control of the frame. If the interaction is getting framed a certain way and you're playing along with it, you can get seriously off-track and stuck going nowhere. Don't let your attempts to help someone learn get reframed as an attack. If you notice that's how the interaction is being framed, you can reframe the conversation again by stating the new frame, or insisting on behaving according to your own frame and not theirs.

An example:

Jane is a lesbian, and her friend Hana is a straight woman. One day, Hana and Jane had just watched a film in class. On their way to lunch, Hana says "Ugh, why did we have to watch that movie, it was so gay." Jane tells Hana not to call things gay to mean bad or stupid. Hana responds with "Are you calling me a homophobe? I thought we were friends!" Jane says "No. We are friends, that's why I'm telling you this. I want to hang out with you without feeling uncomfortable." Hana takes a breath and then says "Ok, if it makes you uncomfortable, then I'll stop."

In this example, Hana had framed Jane's confrontation as an attack on Hana's character. Jane reframed her confrontation as a gesture of commitment to the friendship. Within this frame, Hana is reminded that listening to her friend when she's hurt is something good friends do.

Other ways you can reframe confrontations to your advantage are

  • Framing harmful comments about your demographic as being about you personally e.g. "When you make jokes about trans people, it's like you're making fun of me behind my back."
  • Maintaining the frame that you are trying to educate, and therefore help, them. e.g. "I'm trying to help you learn so you don't make this mistake again. If you don't want my help then that's your loss."
  • Reframing as a form of naming the microaggression. e.g. If they say "It was just a joke," you can try "It wasn't just a joke, it was workplace harassment."
  • If they frame the confrontation as an attack, reframe it as a defense. "I'm trying to defend myself from the attack you just made on me."
  • Being honest about your goals. e.g. "I don't care if you understand, I just want you to not do it again."

It is important that you only reframe the interaction in a way that is appropriate for your goal in the confrontation popover available .

It's always important to remember that sometimes, there's just nothing you can do. Even if you frame the confrontation as being for the sake of your friendship, your friend still might care less than you expected. Remember that if someone is doing harmful things, there's always a good chance that they're doing them knowingly and just don't care. Even if you reframe, they might re-reframe. Ultimately, there's only so much I can prescribe when it comes to how you argue for yourself. There's no magic words that will make someone listen or agree with you.

[1] Deborah Tannen. (1986). That’s no what I meant! How conversational style makes or breaks you relations with others. New York, NY, USA: Ballantine Books.

[2] Deborah Tannen. (1989). Talking voies: repetition, dialogue, and imagery in conversational discourse. Avon, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Deborah Tannen. (n.d.). Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse.

[4] Derald Wing Sue (Ed.). (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.