If someone reacts to something you do in a way you consider unreasonable and disproportionate, consider whether it might be a microagression that person experiences all the time in invasive ways. That’s not always or (for sufficiently atypical people) usually the case, but it’s the case often enough that it’s something it’s important to consider.
Here are some indications that someone’s offense at something you did might be reasonable. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a few things I have some idea how to explain:
1) Did someone react badly to a compliment? If so, it’s likely that there is a reason for this related to microagressions. This goes *double* if the compliment was related to someone’s physical appearance. (Eg: complimenting someone on weight loss, telling someone their eyes have exotic beauty, telling someone their accent is adorable)
2) Did you say something suggesting that someone is laudably atypical of their group? For instance: “You’re autistic?! You must be so high functioning!” or “You’re so good at that, it’s hard to believe you’re a woman”, or “I was surprised at how good your English is!”
3) Were you attempting to make a joke? Is it possible that it had boundary-violating content?
In a professional context, and in many social contexts, it is considered inappropriate to make sexual jokes. Violating that rule is very often a prelude to violating other sexual boundaries, and it will be read as a sexual threat even if you have no intention of breaking other sexual rules. So if you noticed a hilarious sex joke that could be made about the circuits you’re designing, it’s probably best not to make it, and if you do and someone gets offended, it’s probably your fault (even if you meant it totally innocently).
Jokes about minority groups you are not part of are usually boundary-violating in a similar way. For instance, if you’re a man, it’s problematic to tell a joke about irrational female group behavior to a woman, because you’re in effect asking her to identify with male contempt for women. This is the case even if you heard the joke from a member of the group you’re not part of. Making fun of your own group or its situation is different from participating in mockery by outsiders.
Also, some images are loaded for members of other groups in ways that you might not know about, and they matter whether or not you intended to reference them. For instance, if you notice that it happens to be the case that a particular world figure’s name sounds like “Monkey Potato” in one of the languages you speak, pointing this out has racist connotations even if that has nothing to do with what you’re amused by.
If someone seems inexplicably offended by a joke you made, think it over and see if you used any images that might have similar problems. (For instance, if you suspect that you inadvertently used a racist symbol try googling the word you used and ‘racist’).
3) Did you ask a personal question? Is it possible that doing so violating a boundary?
When you’re asking personal questions, it’s important to make sure it’s ok to do so first. Saying something like “Can I ask you a personal question?” can be helpful, but it’s not really sufficient. If your expressive language is such that it’s possible for you to do so, try to structure your questions in a way that makes it clear that you aren’t demanding an answer. For instance “I’d like to ask you a question about your hat. Would that be ok, or would you rather not talk about it?”, then *pause* and wait for a reply before you make any move to ask the question. And then if they’ve said it’s ok, ask the question in a way that doesn’t force an answer. Having received permission to *ask* a personal question does *not* entitle you to an answer.
Also, do not use people as google. Don’t ask about something easily googleable unless you’re primarily trying to initiate a conversation with that person *and* have reason to expect they’d welcome it (for instance, if you are at a party, it’s probably ok to ask someone what their shirt means. It is not ok to stop someone in the street to ask why they are wearing a headscarf).
And, if in doubt, don’t ask.
And some things you should err *especially* heavily on the side of not asking about, because they are things that people get invasively questioned about and asked to justify multiple times a day. If you want to ask about something that might be stigmatized, don’t ask unless you have a *specific* reason to think that the question would be welcome.