Had I not pursued a career in writing, I think I would have studied linguistics. I have always been fascinated by regional dialects and the different ways that we communicate depending on the zip code.
Growing up north of Philly and a bridge crossing away from New Jersey means I’m a total pizza snob, and I definitely have a tristate dialect. But what perhaps stands out more than the way I say things like “water” or “forehead,” is my overall communication style. Where I stand on the line between assertive and aggressive has left me feeling misunderstood many times.
In her 2017 HBO special “Nice Lady,” Michelle Wolf asks the audience if they’re still wondering why we didn’t elect the first female president. Her dissection of Hilary’s defeat is completely politically incorrect, and in my opinion, very relevant.
“It’s because no one likes her, I voted for her I and I don’t like her… You have to be a b*tch to be that powerful, nice ladies aren’t in charge of things… If you’re in charge of something and you think you’re a nice lady, no one else does… There are whole email chains about how much you’re not a nice lady…”
Obviously, this is satire and glosses over the many intricacies of our gendered political situation. But there’s been plenty of chatter about the mean, unelectable Hilary over the past few years.
Susan Chira of The New York Times addressed the “fury and revulsion aimed at Mrs. Clinton” in Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were. She talks about the deficit in female leadership saying, “it’s not a pipeline problem, it’s about loneliness, competition, and deeply rooted barriers,” adding that:
“Most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive.”
WHY YOU’RE NOT IN CHARGE OF THINGS
I’m not advising you to quit being a kind, empathic, and considerate human, and I’m in no way implying that you should tolerate harassment or abuse, because #metoo. On the contrary, emotional intelligence can be a career-boosting superpower if you know how to use it, and deep down I’m a total creampuff myself.
But let’s just start with an acknowledgment that women in our culture are socialized to be deferential and agreeable. And this means we’re way more likely to have our necks stepped on at work.
Unfortunately, we’re also contributing to the problem by failing to address some damaging norms.
Not convinced? See if you can relate to any of the following:
- When a colleague is a day late on a deadline, we respond with an email saying that we’re “just checking in.”
- When outlining a project’s meticulous requirements, we apologize for “being so nitpicky.”
- When we get harsh feedback, we take it personally and let it interrupt our ability to do our best work.
- We don’t ask for raises, negotiate, file complaints, or do anything else that might rock the boat.
- We worry that we’re not talented enough to land a leadership gig. So we cling to our current role, underemployed and underpaid, without any attempt to actualize our goals.
LEAN IN & HOLD TIGHT
I grew up in the Northeast, the oldest in a big, loud, ethnically diverse family. And while my upbringing was definitely old school and rough around the edges, it taught me how to make my voice heard above the din.
Fast forward a few decades, and now I’m a tenaciously ambitious, curious content strategist living in the bible belt. So you can imagine that I’ve had a clash or two with the “bless your heart” crowd, and I’ve struggled to find female mentors with similar attitudes.
It takes a hefty dose of self-awareness, professional maturity, and a thick skin to work alongside or underneath insensitive or small-minded people, especially men who try to talk over you or belittle you.
But I’ve learned that we can’t be afraid of the people guarding the glass ceiling anymore, or of hurting someone’s feelings with our own ambition. We can’t make a hasty exit from the room when someone ruffles our sensitivities; I guarantee you that someone will slide right into your empty chair.
And we need powerful women with financial resources and social capital leading the charge. There are countless other marginalized women relying on you, because the reality is that for them, speaking up could still cost them their ability to feed their children and pay their rent.
Now more than ever, we have to lean in AND hold tight to all that we’ve accomplished (even when we’re offended). In the midst of all the #TIMESUP movement, I challenge you to do more than tweet. I challenge you to be direct in your communication and upfront about your worth, to stop apologizing, and to start redefining what it means to be a “nice lady.”
What are your thoughts on what it means to be “nice” at work? How do you manage pushback from being assertive?