Single people experience subtle and not-so-subtle put-downs

Bella DePaulo
Photo by Tyler Casey on Unsplash

What do all these examples have in common?

  • Getting asked questions such as “Why are you still single?” or “Just one?”
  • Getting invited by couples to lunch but not dinner, outings on weekdays but not weekends, kids’ birthday parties but not movies with grown-ups.
  • Getting assigned to the kids table at Thanksgiving, the singles table at weddings, or, as a guest in another person’s home, the couch in the living room instead of a bedroom with a door that shuts.

They are all among the countless everyday slights that are pervasive in the lives of single people. I chose those examples because they are recognizable. But single people all have their own unique experiences. For example, at a social event, a perfect stranger approached me and said, “You’re single? My daughter’s Girl Scout troop needs a new leader. You’d be perfect!”

When I first started paying attention to these slights several decades ago, I did not realize there was a name for them. It is “microaggressions.” They are part of the broader category I call “singlism,” which also includes more serious instances of the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people and the discrimination against them.

I have been writing about the microaggressions of single life for many years. Sometimes I respond to the people who perpetrate them. But each time I do, I hold my breath, because I know I am at risk for getting pummeled for taking the small stuff seriously.

“How to respond to microaggressions,” an article by Hahna Yoon in the New York Times, provides a terrific, thoughtful discussion of the many considerations involved in deciding what to do (or not do) when you are the target of microaggressions. I’m going to draw from her article repeatedly.

In a way, though, I’m on my own. It is rarely recognized that single people are targets of microaggressions. Yoon, for instance, said:

“Microaggressions are often discussed in a racial context, but anyone in a marginalized group — be it as a result of their gender, sexual orientation, disability or religion — can experience one.”

Marital status or relationship status did not get mentioned. Neither did the status often confused with marital status – parental status.

What are microaggressions?

Referring to a book on microaggressions by Professor Derald Wing Sue, Yoon defines microaggressions as:

“the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of marginalized groups experience in their day-to-day interactions with individuals who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way.”

Two points are important. First, these are relatively minor infractions – hence, the “micro” part of microaggressions. Second, the people responsible for the microaggressions often do not realize that there is anything wrong with what they did or said.

Even when infractions are serious, people don’t recognize them as illegitimate when they happen to single people

When it comes to familiar territories such as race and gender, people at least realize that the broader, more serious category of offences exists. They know there is such a thing as racism and sexism. The same is not true of singlism. Most people have never heard of it. When a blatant example is described, they don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

My colleagues and I documented this in the domain of housing discrimination. Told about a landlord who rented to a white person, even though a black person offered to pay more, people called it what it was – discrimination. They said it was illegitimate. They did the same when a landlord rented to a man when a woman offered to pay more, or a heterosexual when a lesbian or gay man offered to pay more, or a thin person when an obese person offered to pay more.

When a landlord rented to a married person when the single person offered to pay more, though, people mostly thought that was fine. When we asked why the landlord chose the married person, participants rarely gave the same answer they gave when asked about the other decisions, that the landlord was prejudiced and was practicing discrimination. Instead, they most often said that the landlord favored the married person because the person was married – as if that in itself was a sufficient explanation.

What was the meaning behind that microaggression?

I have been pilloried for pointing out the microaggressions of single life. Whether I’m writing about them or discussing them in everyday life, I get mocked and attacked – sometimes even by other single people. So I -- along with all the people targeted by microaggressions based on other categories such as race, gender, disability, age, or size – need to decide each time whether to instead just ignore them.

Hahna Yoon put it this way:

“When I tell people that I am writing about microaggressions, most — even some of my closest friends who are women of color — ask me why. It’s tempting to ignore microaggressions, considering blatant, obvious discrimination is still a real problem, but the buildup of these “everyday slights” has consequences on a victim’s mental and physical health that cannot be overlooked. The normalization of microaggressions is antithetical to a well-rounded society with equal opportunities for marginalized individuals.
“So many of us ask the same questions: Was that really a microaggression? Is this worth tackling? What should I say and how should I cope? Or worse, we’ve convinced ourselves that the questions are not even worth asking.”

Those who want us to ignore microaggressions, or who don’t even recognize them for what they are, say things like, “You’re too sensitive” or “Get over it” or “Grow a thick skin.” But as Yoon pointed out, research shows that microaggressions have real consequences for the targets of them, regardless of whether the targets try to ignore them. Microaggressions can undermine physical health and mental health, and the harms can be enduring.

There are real costs to speaking up about microaggressions. If you say something to the person who insulted you, that person is unlikely to respond graciously. If you say something outside of earshot of the person who insulted you – online, for example – you may well get trolled. And even apart from the pain of dealing with other people’s reactions, you have your own well-being to consider. It takes mental energy and emotional resources to respond to a microaggression.

Before you decide whether to do something about a microaggression, it helps to understand the offense for yourself. The first part of that process is to recognize that a particular comment or behavior is in fact a microaggression. The second is to figure out what it means.

Here are some examples of what I think various microaggressions against single people mean:

  • When single people are asked, “Why are you still single?”, the message is that there is something wrong with being single and that the single person needs to defend their single status. The word “still” mistakenly implies that everyone will eventually leave their single status and become coupled or married, or wants to do so.
  • When single people, when visiting others, are assigned the couch in the living room instead of a bedroom with a door that shuts, the message is that single people, unlike married people, aren’t grown-ups who deserve privacy.
  • When single people are demoted to lunch by their friends who become coupled, and left out of outings such as dinners and movies on the weekends, the message is that your friends now see themselves as part of an exclusive club to which you do not belong. Being single when they are coupled means you are less important than they are. Even though you are the same person they valued as a friend, now that they are coupled and you are single, you have become less valuable.

How to decide whether to respond to a microaggression

When, as a single person, you experience one of those “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults” that are called microaggressions, one of the most important challenges you face is deciding whether to respond.

Professor Kevin Nadal of John Jay College is one of the scholars of microaggressions whose work was described in Hahna Yoon’s article. Nadal created a Guide to Responding to Microaggressions, consisting of five questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to respond to a slight.

1. “If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?”

Suggest to another person that something they said or did was offensive, and it is likely that they will become defensive. My guess is that this is even more likely to be true when the microaggression is about a person’s single status. Most people do not even know that there is such a thing as singlism. When examples of singlism are pointed out to them – even examples that they have no part in perpetrating – they too often think there’s nothing wrong with them.

Because of this lack of awareness of singlism, some of the most unlikely people practice it. I was surprised and disappointed to find that academic colleagues who thought of themselves as open-minded, and who would not in a million years make a racist or sexist comment, would unselfconsciously and unapologetically engage in singlism. Precisely because they think of themselves as so fair-minded and unprejudiced, they may be especially likely to react defensively when their own singlism is pointed out.

2. “If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., co-worker, family member, etc.)?

The woman who suggested that I volunteer to be the leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop was a stranger. I knew that I would probably never see her again, so there would have been few repercussions to calling her out on her singlism.

It is different for people who are part of your life, such as friends, relatives, and coworkers. If you try to engage them in a discussion of some slight they directed your way, and they are annoyed at you for doing so, you will have to keep seeing them again and again.

When I was in a supermarket, pre-pandemic, I heard a startlingly singlist remark. Referring to a coworker, the person scanning my groceries said that she had no reason to be stressed because “She has no husband, no kids. She has nothing!” The person who perpetrated that microaggression is someone would never play an important role in my life. Yet even in that situation, I remember thinking to myself that if I said anything, things could become awkward in the future. Maybe I’d even feel like I needed to avoid her line in the future.

These first two questions point to reasons why you may be tempted to just ignore a microaggression instead of responding to it. The next two underscore reasons why you would want to respond.

3. “If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?”

4. “If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?”

I have dedicated the last several decades of my life to standing up for single people, so questions 3 and 4 really weigh on me. When I let a microaggression pass, I almost always regret it – even when I am painfully aware of why it would have been difficult to do anything different.

Question #4 describes the most obvious cost of not standing up to singlist behavior – the perpetrator will go on thinking that I found nothing objectionable in what they said or did. Another cost is a missed opportunity to do some educating and consciousness-raising.

Question number 5, “If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?”, is one that is unlikely to be relevant to microaggressions directed at single people. Maybe if you are interacting with a particularly volatile person, then challenging a microaggression will set them off. That would probably be true of any microaggression, and not just those relevant to a person’s status as a single person.

Microinterventions: how to educate, and not alienate, the perpetrators of microaggressions

It happened again. You got pelted with a microaggression. You thought about the meaning behind it, considered the costs and benefits of responding, and now you have come down on the side of saying something to the aggressor. But how do you do that in a way that is educational and not off-putting? How can you get the person to think in a more enlightened way and not just respond defensively?

Hahna Yoon pointed readers to a guide written by Diane Goodman, a diversity and social justice consultant. Her document consists of a series of 15 different approaches you can take, complete with a sample wording for each, in responding to someone who has targeted you with a microaggression.

Here are some of her examples:

Ask for more clarification: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” “How have you come to think that?”

Pretend you don’t understand: As people try to explain their comments, they often realize how silly they sound. Tell them, “I don’t get it.” Ask them, “Why is that funny?”

Challenge the stereotype: Give information, share your own experience and/or offer alternative perspectives. “Actually, in my experience______.” “I think that’s a stereotype. I’ve learned that______.” “Another way to look at it is____________.”

Asking for clarification is a straightforward way to respond to the ubiquitous “why are you still single” microaggression. For example, you could reply with your own question, such as “why do you ask?”. (Here are some snarkier answers.)

Pretending that you don’t understand also works as a way of dealing with the question of why you are still single. For example: “Your question makes it sound like there is something wrong with being single. Is there?”

Challenging the stereotype is one of my favorite approaches, since I have spent several decades of my professional life debunking stereotypes about single people. An example that has stuck with me is from 2016, when Taiwan elected a single woman, Tsai Ing-wen, as President. A Chinese military official did not approve, saying that because the newly elected president was single, her strategies were likely to be “emotional, personal and extreme.” The people of Taiwan were not going to put up with that. They took to social media to challenge that bigoted perspective. One person, for example, said, “Many women abroad admire Ms. Tsai’s tenacity and drive, especially the fact she is strong and independent and does not need a man to rule.”

The singlism I experienced in the supermarket is another example. When the person at the check-out said that a coworker had no reason to be stressed because “She has no husband, no kids. She has nothing!”, I could have stood up for myself and other single people. I could have told her that “I, too, have no husband and no kids. But I have never felt that I have nothing. In fact, I think I lead a very meaningful life, full of friends, relatives, and work that I love, and on top of that, I get to live in a spectacularly beautiful part of the country. That doesn’t mean I have no stress in my life. I don’t think anyone’s life is stress free. We all deal with life’s challenges, from the small stuff such as plumbing problems, to the devastating things, such as the death of people we love.”

Okay, so that would be a lot to say in a check-out line, but you get the point.

Microaggressions and the more serious offenses

I’ll end with one last point. Microaggressions are “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults.” They are minor infractions, hence the “micro” of “microaggressions.” But that doesn’t mean that single people do not experience very serious forms of singlism as well – instances of bias, bigotry, and discrimination that can be life-threatening. They do. The entire spectrum of singlism should be taken seriously.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA

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