Women, at least in the West, are socialized to be conflict averse. We’re supposed to be accommodating and unthreatening, and these attitudes have a big influence on our behaviour. While there are many exceptions, most women tend to avoid being direct, and instead tend to develop a preference for passive ways of dealing with conflict. Passiveness is being anything but direct—either not expressing an opinion at all to prevent a disagreement, or expressing irritation in very subtle, indirect ways that don’t force you to say anything blunt. Sometimes this is called passive aggression.
If you’re anything like me, these notions that women are not supposed to vocalize their needs or wants affects behaviours down to your willingness to say yes to a glass of water at your friend’s house—sad, I know. The idea is that your needs might inconvenience someone else is unbearable, so you learn how to minimize them.
Common passive aggressive ways of dealing with conflict or someone you don’t like are shit-talking, acting moody around the person you’re annoyed with, or doing things to rub them the wrong way, all instead of outwardly saying something. This is counterproductive for you because the other person has to guess why you’re acting negatively towards them, or might not even notice. You rarely get what you want and end up wasting energy trying to communicate it in vague ways.
What’s even more problematic with passiveness is that you give up your power: you end up agonizing over something that someone else did, even though the person who crossed your boundary should be the one agonizing over it. When was the last time someone pissed you off, and you said directly to their face, “please don’t do [whatever they did that pissed you off]”?
Men are much more inclined to face problems head on simply because they’re socialized differently, not because they’re problem solving prophets (although don’t be fooled, many guys suck at being assertive too). The worst part about this all is most women end up blaming themselves for their inability or fear of being assertive, even though this is a consequence of sexism. However, women can fight this conditioned tendency by becoming more assertive. Here are a few ways to jumpstart your journey to being an assertive woman!
- Try addressing the problem head-on with whomever you’re frustrated with. If your friend has been overstepping your boundaries, raise it in a relaxed but firm tone. Let them know that it bothered you, and ask them to please not do it again.
- The age-old “I statement” approach: when you phrase something in terms of your own concerns, people are less likely to jump to the defensive. This makes them more likely to actually listen to what you have to say. A win for both parties!
- If you’re still not comfortable being direct face-to-face, there’s no shame in sending a text message. Over text, you can take the time to write exactly what you want to say and not worry about getting nervous or fumbling over your words like you might in person. *If you choose this method, make sure that you don’t undermine yourself after the fact when you do eventually see your “confrontee” in person. Undermining yourself looks like “oh don’t worry about it, never mind what I said, sorry I overreacted”—basically, anything that dilutes your message.
- Practice being direct once a day, just to build the habit. Whether it’s asking your roommates if they could do their dishes, or telling your boss you don’t want to work Saturdays, practice outwardly saying what you want. Put it on your to-do list!
- Talk about this social phenomenon to bring awareness to it: tell your guy friends especially, who might have never considered this. If you tell people like your friends and family that being assertive is something you’re working on, they might be able to help you and catch you in moments when you could be more direct.
- If you’re in a heated situation, and you’re not sure how you want to respond, buy yourself some time! Simply saying “I’m going to take some time to think, thank you for your patience” is still polite, but communicates that you feel entitled (rightly so), not rushed, and respect yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to seek out professional advice and help—Mac’s Student Wellness (like most university campuses) offers therapists you can talk to who can help you set goals and habits to become a more direct person, and approach conflict in a way that’s more conducive to you. Since there tends to be a waitlist for these things, ask your parents if they have health benefits in the meantime that might be able to cover a psychotherapy session. If your parents are judgemental about your desire to seek professional advice, remind them that you think this could really benefit you. If they’re still not forthcoming, back to Plan A: seek on campus support!
Sometimes people label direct women as “bitches”. If we know what we want and are not afraid to communicate it (something very empowering), people are threatened. Being threatened or uncomfortable with a woman’s self-confidence is also a societal response, but the right people recognize when someone is just speaking up for themselves, and when they’re actually in the wrong.
At the end of the day, even though the difficulty we have being direct is largely a byproduct of sexism, we can’t wait for society to change because social change occurs slowly. We have to live our lives in the meantime! This means we must figure out for ourselves how to become more direct. The message is not to beat yourself up about being avoidant or passive, because that will only make things worse. Instead, focus on redirecting your energy into becoming more assertive. You can do it, and you should do it for your own good.