In the world of vintage furniture, the "casting couch" is a piece that, until recently, seemed timeless. It was hard to imagine that this item, a feature in the offices, rehearsal halls and studios of many a showbiz boss, could ever go out of style.
But with the rise of the #MeToo movement, the casting couch may soon be as passé as the media armoire or wall-mounted phone.
It's not surprising that the entertainment sector leads the way in exposing exploitative workplace behaviour, and not just because the problem is rampant. From Weinstein to allegations at Canada's own Soulpepper Theatre, the conditions for abuse in the entertainment industry are ideal: competition for too few jobs is fierce, work is precarious and hiring criteria highly subjective, and, as we've heard, those in authority have few checks on their power.
Performers grab the headlines because they already have profile. But what about those who don't? MeToo has exposed that most women (and many men) have faced harassment in their work lives. It's been on a continuum from unwanted comments and solicitations, to outright assault.
But what's the first step in addressing offensive behaviour?
Recently, I led the second of two diversity and inclusion workshops for the national council and staff of Canadian Actor's Equity Association. The day focused on how to create a more inclusive association and safer, more respectful workplaces.
Through this process, we explored the issue of micro-aggressions, the everyday verbal or nonverbal slights, snubs, or insults, usually unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to people based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Examples highlighted in the workshop ranged from the racist (lighting choices that worked only on light skin tones) to homophobic ("that's gay") to sexist ("it's time to grow a pair.") Participants explored how they as individuals could respond to micro-aggressions, on their own behalf, or for others.
No one should have to deal with a daily stream of slights.
One tricky thing about micro-aggressions — both at work and the rest of life — is that they're entrenched in our society. They slip into our minds and out into our words without our being aware of the impact. They generally happen below the level of awareness of well-meaning people whose intent does not align with the impact of a careless remark. Sometimes the impact isn't even known, either because the offender is oblivious, or the receiver remains silent.
It can be tough to know how to respond when you're on the receiving end of a micro-aggression, especially when the culprit is someone you like or respect. But it doesn't matter if it's intentional or not, no one should have to deal with a daily stream of slights, so here are some suggestions of what you can do.
It's not necessary to react right away. You can take time to think it over and decide how to react, if at all, later. But if you respond, it helps to take a moment to reflect on what you've heard, what it meant and how to proceed. If it is the first time, ask for clarification by inviting the person to repeat what they said or did.
If the goal is to have a productive conversation, try not to get defensive. It doesn't benefit anyone to get into an argument. Approach the problem with a growth mindset rather than fixed mindset. Consider the other side. Think about where their remark or behaviour was coming from. Remember, message sent is not always message received, and the intended meaning often is lost in translation.
When we hear something that we find offensive, we're quick to assume that this reflects a character defect of the speaker: they're a jerk. But when dealing with microaggressions, it's important to test this assumption.
Ever had someone not return your call? You wait, furious, and fume about how rude and disrespectful they've been. Ever not returned a call yourself? You had a good reason, right? You were busy. You forgot.
We tend to cut others way less slack than we cut ourselves, a tendency known as fundamental attribution error. When we have less than perfect behaviour, we always have cause. When other people do, they're cretins.
When it comes to micro-aggressions, it's often worth giving the benefit of doubt. Yes, some people may just be jerks, but most people of us are doing our best, and often fumbling. If we're always assuming ill intent, we'll never know the difference.
Given that the impact is often unknown to the offender, help them understand how their behaviour made you feel.
You can preface your response with:
"You may not realize this but..."
"This was likely not your intent..."
"It may surprise you to hear this..."
Sharing the impact makes visible what may otherwise be unknowable to the other person.
This isn't as simple as saying "you're wrong," which almost always provokes defensiveness. It's saying, "That's not always right." This might start with:
"I've experienced something different..."
"Another way of looking at this is..."
"That could also mean..."
"I really don't agree with that."
You may choose to explain your disagreement. Or not. It's up to you. It's not your job to educate the whole world. But in ignoring unwanted behaviour, we run the risk of enabling it.
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In the end, we live with what we're willing to put up with. To build workplaces and communities that are more inclusive and respectful to all, becoming mindful of and addressing these small offenses can be a powerful step forward.
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