Assertiveness, April 2021
By Christina Carney
My communication style leans towards assertive and has since I was a little girl. It’s how I prefer people to communicate with me as well: honest, direct, and respectful. My initial thought was, who wouldn’t prefer that? But, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
I learned fairly early that being assertive wasn’t acceptable for girls, even if it was before I understood what assertiveness meant. Instead I was considered a bit bossy, or, as an 8th grade teacher once told my parents, a “prima donna.” Apparently having something to say and wanting to be heard made me “a very temperamental person with an inflated view of their own talent or importance” (dictionary.com). This piled onto the early trauma I had experienced, and what that taught me about voice and silence.
I received another strong message about my assertiveness in my late teens and early twenties, when I found myself in two abusive relationships, back-to-back. Voicing my needs, feelings and thoughts made them uncomfortable, and because their discomfort could quickly become explosive, I chose to become silent in order to keep the peace. It took me some time to recover and heal from those experiences and to once more reclaim my voice.
When I moved from upstate New York to Texas, I once again found myself evaluating my communication style. My straightforwardness seemed to come across as harsh sometimes, so I’ve had to learn to soften my delivery. As Mary Poppins sang to us, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” My directness seems to be more acceptable when accompanied by some sweetness.
These reflections led me to a few thoughts. One is that communication is cultural and that how assertive communication will be perceived and received will depend on your gender, race and cultural norms. Western, patriarchal culture says that assertiveness is the style that will be the most successful (e.g., get you the raise, or the promotion), but the reality is that this is only true if you fit a certain type, i.e., if you are a white male. In my research on this topic I found many articles encouraging women to come up with other strategies to get what they want. You only have to look to politics to see how gender affects our perception of assertiveness as a valuable trait. And when you add race into the mix, you add yet another layer to the conversation. The value put on assertiveness seems misplaced if we cannot apply it evenly.
What is even more egregious is that our cultural norms around communication often leave many people silenced. Silence is the tool of perpetrators and oppressors and is never okay. Your ability to be heard shouldn’t depend on your status in our cultural hierarchy. Because communication is really about having a voice and being heard. I don’t see anything wrong with making some adaptations to communication, as long as we can voice those needs, desires, thoughts and feelings in a way that is true to ourselves. But honestly? I’ll take whatever the consequences are, to never be silenced again.