No More Ms. Nice Guy: Assertive Communication

In the 24 years that I have been teaching assertiveness and violence prevention to girls and women, when I ask them about why they don’t say “no” or set a boundary when they know their personal integrity—or even their safety—is at stake, my students generally make one of the following types of comments:

“I don’t want to be mean.”
“I don’t want them to get angry.”
“It’s easier to just not say anything.”
“I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“What if I’m wrong about their intentions?”

These statements highlight a contentious and complicated issue: the importance placed on girls and women to always be nice. We are socialized to be nice and polite, regardless of the cost. In some cases, being nice merely costs us extra, unrewarded or uncompensated time, effort, or energy (“I’ll run your copies as soon as I’m finished running mine and then bring them to your office; sorry for the inconvenience!”). In other cases, the cost can be quite high indeed: bullying, harassment, or even assault.

Now let me be clear: I encourage niceness, favors, and collaborative efforts. However, I am saying (and research backs me up on this) that when women communicate assertively (both verbally and nonverbally), they are less likely to be the target of bullying, harassment and even violent assault.

My definition of assertive communication, as it pertains to women and our general wellbeing, is the following: Assertiveness is educating other people about how to treat you. In other words, you are letting others know what your boundaries are: what is okay, and what is not okay with you. That’s it. It’s not rude, and it should not inspire anger or aggression in others. When it does, that’s a red flag that the person you are dealing with does not respect or care about the boundaries you set. When your assertiveness is met with aggression, don’t mince words: tell the person exactly what you want them to do and don’t apologize.

“You’re too close. I need you to take a step back.”
“Please refrain from making those off-color references around me.”
“I’ll give you a call when I’m finished with the copier so you can use it, but I can’t make your copies for you today. You’ll have to do your own.”

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