In my first few years after coming to the United States from China, I was known and addressed by two names.
The first was my own name, Yinnan, given to me by my parents. The other was Iris, a name I gave myself for the ease of others in the United States – Starbucks staff, professors and classmates in graduate school, and other acquaintances.
How I introduced myself largely determined how I showed up in that space. Iris could superficially pass as an “American,” but Yinnan was an alien in this land. I reserved my true name only for those who I wanted to forge a genuine relationship with.
I juggled between the two identities for a long time. The process was mentally exhausting, but manageable. Until I faced a choice.
I was working at a three-person production shop and had been charged with reaching out to filmmakers on behalf of a film screening project. My work email was created under Yinnan, but I called myself Iris in the emails. I realized that the discrepancy might confuse people, especially if it was our first time connecting. It became clear that it was best for me to use only one name.
The question was, which one?
‘Yinnan’ is authentic to my identity. But ‘Iris’ makes cross-cultural experiences and my career development much easier to manage. I consulted with my boss at that time, and he responded without thinking, “Why don’t you keep your Chinese name? We have one American, one Australian, and one Chinese at the firm. We’re literally from all over the world. Isn’t that cool?”
I was shocked by that answer. It had never occurred to me that being anything other than American could be “cool.” Since then, I have strictly used my real name.
It was only years later that I was able to decipher what that moment truly meant to me. It cracked open the shell I built around myself and gave me permission to welcome and show up as the person I truly am. My former boss may have forgotten about that interaction years ago, but I remember and will forever be grateful for it.
That is an example of a micro-affirmation and how powerful micro-affirmations can be.
Micro-affirmations are small positive messages that explicitly recognize and validate an individual and their identity. Researcher Mary Rowe, who studies micro-messages, described micro-affirmations as, “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion, and caring and graceful acts of listening.”
The complexity and enormity of what it takes to thoughtfully engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) work can be overwhelming, even for the most devoted leaders and organizations taking on this work. Micro-affirmations can be a starting place for those seeking to create a more inclusive workplace.
Micro-affirmations are those expressions of empathy and appreciation, that little extra effort taken to understand and respect someone who may be different from you. While micro-affirmations matter to everyone, they are especially significant for groups and individuals who traditionally have been excluded or underrepresented. Micro-affirmations can affirm their value, something that has oftentimes been neglected or diminished. Like microaggressions, micro-affirmations can have a disproportionately large impact on an individual’s self-image and self-esteem.
Committing to these small daily acts of inclusion can send a powerful message throughout your organization. Micro-affirmations can be as simple as giving your undivided attention to someone speaking, being genuinely curious about and inviting other people to share their opinions, or asking a person to teach you how to pronounce their name if you’re not sure about the pronunciation.
When coming from leaders, micro-affirmations can also model inclusive behavior and explicitly communicate expectations for your team. For example, if a male employee has a tendency of interrupting his female colleagues in meetings, you can intervene when you witness this behavior and say, “I’m sorry, I want to hear what she has to say first.”
The rule of thumb within micro-affirmations is to be genuine. Inauthentic micro-affirmations can risk tipping over into microaggressions.
While small in comparison to other grandiose DE&I efforts, micro-affirmations can be a force multiplier in cultivating, modeling, and maintaining an inclusive workplace for leaders and organizations.
So, if you are wondering what you can do to advance DE&I in your organization or to simply to be a better ally to marginalized communities, consider starting with micro-affirmations.