On Being A Very Direct Woman In A Passive-Aggressive World
I deprogrammed my Stepford-self, but not everyone welcomes that.
When I was growing up I was a really good girl. I did what I was told and didn’t question authority. Instead of speaking up for myself when I felt like my interests were being run over, I’d cry alone in frustration. Even in the early part of our marriage, James used to chastise me for letting people push me around. This was particularly annoying to him because I would stand up for myself with him, but not with strangers or those I was less intimately connected to.
One time I went to go get my hair cut and colored. I’d always had blonde hair growing up, but in adulthood, it began to get browner and I kept it looking “like me” with some help from the salon. We’d just moved and so I went to a new place I’d never been to before. They proceeded to inform me that they would not color my hair, but would put in some highlights. I was annoyed but agreed to it. Once the process was complete, I had large chunks of blonde in my otherwise light brown hair. It was absurd looking and I told them that I couldn’t go out in public looking like that. A different stylist spent another hour covering the new highlights up with brown. I went home looking pretty much the same as I had when I’d gone in. “You didn’t pay them for that, did you?” James asked incredulously. But of course, I had because I didn’t yet know how to really stand up for myself in an uncomfortable situation. Instead, James called the salon to complain and canceled the check.
Fast forward to the present and I’ve come a long way since then. Something like that would never happen to me now. I would have walked out the minute they refused to do my hair the way I wanted, but only after politely telling them that it was BS. I’ve worked really hard to learn how to stand firm on things that are important to me, but more importantly, I’ve learned to speak plainly. I do try to be considerate and tactful, but if I have something to say, I’m going to lay it all out on the table. In the past, as I was learning how to speak up, I found that trying to be too indirect or circumspect caused more problems than it solved and so now I just say what I need to say.
This largely works out fine and some people actually respond to it very well. We live in a highly passive-aggressive culture where being honest and authentic is often supplanted with disingenuous agreement followed by undermining behaviors. Rather than talking to someone about a place of disagreement, people are inclined to just go behind their back and gripe. And although in theory, nobody likes or approves of that, it’s the way most people go about conflict. I don’t enjoy arguing or pointing out when someone is out of line, but at this juncture, I am not conflict-averse and not afraid to do so.
Talking something through, even if it gets a little heated, even if some swearing takes place, is fine by me if it addresses what’s really at issue and clears the air. As I’ve learned to be more assertive, I’ve also worked quite a bit on doing conflict cleanly. This means, no personal comments or jabs; nothing said for the purposes of hurting the other person or for another effect; talking about the real issue; owning my own stuff and taking responsibility for my part in the conflict. Most people appreciate that.
But even so, there are people who still find this style of communication really disconcerting, perhaps because it’s so rare. Yesterday I was in a conflict discussion with a colleague and she accused me of being aggressive. I pointed out to her that I had not been aggressive, only direct, and had laid what was going on out clearly so that it could be addressed. Because we are so conditioned away from healthy conflict, and women, in particular, are expected to be nice, demure, conciliatory, and agreeable, my directness landed for her as aggression. When I reread to her what I’d written, and asked her to point out the aggressive parts, she couldn’t.
I do have a bit of a take no prisoners outlook when I’m passionate about something, but standing really firmly in your beliefs and advocating strongly for them is not the same thing as being aggressive. But, none-the-less, both men and women tend to view female assertiveness as out of line.
Assertiveness in women is perceived negatively
- Women receive “negative personality criticism”, such as being called bossy or told to “watch their tone” in around 75% of performance reviews. Men, on the other hand, rarely do.
- Women who are assertive or forceful are perceived as 35% less competent than non-assertive women, according to a 2015 VitalSmarts study.
- Women are called bossy in the workplace more often than men are, according to a US study.
I’ve read some suggestions about how women can tailor their assertiveness to be more widely palatable, but I’m not particularly interested in doing that. I’ve spent too many years reclaiming my authenticity to play games where I have to self-monitor for other people’s comfort. Fortunately, I’m in a position where I am generally liked and respected and my job status is unlikely to be harmed by being perceived as too aggressive. This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to evaluate where I could perhaps hone my diplomacy skills, but in general, I am who I am — take it or leave it.
Some of this ability to speak plainly about what’s on my mind comes from greater all-around self-confidence in recent years, but some of it comes from actively deprogramming myself from cultural conditioning via noticing just how much of it I was unconsciously enacting. Once I recognized how often I’d been encouraged and reinforced in being overly accommodating to others, it was easier to start to do it differently.
I’ve also gotten a lot more comfortable with vulnerability. If I’m really frustrated and feeling unheard, I might still break into tears, but I no longer feel the need to go off and do that privately. If it happens in the middle of a conflict situation, then that’s just a part of my authentic self showing up. And as much as I am assertive about my needs and positions, I am also deeply committed to working through things with people and finding common ground before the conversation is over. Maybe that’s why most people put up with my non-standard behavior? I might have a big mouth, but my heart is in the right place. And for the times when I really get negative feedback, like the time a guy I was debating online called me a dick, I just take it to mean that I’m being true to myself in a way that they aren’t used to, and that’s about them more than it is about me.