Friday, October 27, 2006

Assertive, Rude, or Southern?

Academia is a strange little world. It reminds me sometimes of those nature videos of stags butting heads in mating season: there are dominance games all the time. In other words, your ideas are sometimes less important than the force with which you push them.

Now, I lived in the South until I went to college. When I got to grad school, I had an absolute horror of being rude. Interrupting people? Rude. Contradicting distinguished professors? Rude. Saying what you really think? Extremely rude.

You can imagine why, after a couple years of this, I felt like a ratty little doormat in the hallway of Snooty U.

One miserable day, a lightning bolt struck: I realized that my distinguished (read: tenured, old enough to be my grandfather) advisor was telling me what to do, and he was wrong, and I was wasting my time. So I marched into his office one day with a stack of graphs and figures and notebooks and laid down the law: I will do New Thing. I will not do That Project ever, ever again.

He looked me in the eye, smiled, and said ‘Sounds great! What a good idea!’

I just about keeled over in shock. I’d been beating my head against a wall for so long, and suddenly it crumbled when I kicked it. This assertiveness thing? This take-no-nonsense, ultimatum-filled attitude? Very effective.

A few weeks ago, another distinguished prof tried to bulldoze me in a journal meeting; after all, I may be an editor, but he has forty years and fifty pounds on me. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘No, you’re totally wrong, because I tried that and it didn’t work. Here’s how it is.’ And from that moment, he has been so respectful. And all I could think was, why didn’t I do this earlier?

Well, mostly because it’s rude. It’s not how I was raised. Honestly, I’m afraid of turning into someone who’s not able to be nice, or polite. I’m afraid that if I do this long enough, I’ll lose my ability to listen respectfully to other people’s opinions, to hear something wrong and not contradict it, to defer to others when they deserve it. I’m worried that I will become an unkind person, and not be able to find my way back.

In the meantime, though, assertiveness knocks down a lot of doors here.


  1. Anonymous3:54 PM

    Amen to that.

    I'm still trying to get over my inability to accept hospitality. I'm no southern belle...but offer me a glass of water and I'll almost always say no, even if I'm thirsty. Ask again, and I might say yes. But my first instinct is always to say no; saying yes (on the first offer) is rude. WTF?

  2. It really is important to a career to get beyond being polite. You get dismissed as "a nice lady" -- but not respected as a professional if you are afraid to be rude or to hurt someone's feelings. And assertive doesn't mean agressive. It is possible to speak your mind in a non-belligerent way.

    Discovering this was a major factor in being listened to.


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