Assertiveness Is An Age Thing, Not A Gender Thing

It seems like many people just don’t react well to a young woman standing her ground. So, at this point in my life, it seems more effective to play nice.

Every week, my mom and I take my twin toddlers and my 90-year-old grandmother out to lunch. If it sounds like a major production, that’s because it is.

Between the walker and the handicapped parking, the booster seats and the kids’ menus, just getting our butts in the booth takes 20 minutes. Without fail, there’s always some kind of dramatic event—Grandma’s Diet Coke has ice in it, my 3-year-old suddenly decides he doesn’t want grilled cheese, we need napkins, more napkins. And when the situation gets real, my mom is quick to stand up, wave her arms, and audibly shout, “Excuse me, excuse me,” to the first server, busser, or stranger in a black polo shirt that walks by.

Are you cringing? Let me guess…you’re under 40.

I’ll admit, there was a time when my mom’s direct approach embarrassed me. “Mom, Mom, it’s OK, he’s coming with the highchair/water/menus,” I’d shush her. At a certain point though, I realized that Mama Bear gets shit done. She does. And she’s not rude or pushy or bitchy or whatever adjective we like to use to describe women who dare to ask for what they want (gasp!). She’s just assertive.

And I’m not assertive. Or, at least, not as much as I should be. I know that the trigger response is to say it’s because I’m a woman and I must not feel that I’m supposed to be firm or direct or demanding. Yes, that’s true to an extent, but I think that all of my “aw, gee” meekness has more to do with the fact that I’m young (ish). I’m still vested in being nice because I feel like that’s what’s expected at my age. Plus, I can sort of still get away with playing the smiley, cutesy, self-deprecating card when I need tech help or customer service or a toilet fixed. So, play it I do.

Now, before anyone goes shaming me, let me just say that I’ve always been burdened with this need to be nice. It’s not a gender thing, it’s a Jenny thing. I tend to be more concerned about the other person’s feelings or their bad day or their agenda, and decide it must be more important than mine. It’s a good quality and a personality flaw at the same time. I have friends who would absolutely speak up, in moments when I wouldn’t. But I have even more friends who would be just as sugar-coated as I am.

As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve started to get over it.

I’m way more direct in my 30’s than I ever was in my 20’s. Also, I’m a mother now and I really don’t have time to get screwed around with. You mess with me or my family, and the pink-polished claws come out. Unfortunately though, my calm, firm tone is often met with eye rolls, deep sighs, even chuckles, as though I’m a bratty child who just doesn’t understand. It happens all the time. No matter how respectful and reasonable and articulate I’m being, I get the brush-off. I’m told I’m wrong. I don’t get results.

It seems like many people just don’t react well to a young woman standing her ground, so they cut me down and make me feel small for daring to speak up. Women do it to me. Men do it to me. It’s not particularly empowering and it doesn’t make me all that eager to assert myself again.

So, at this point in my life, it seems more effective to play nice. I catch more bees with honey, so honey it will be. I end statements with a question mark. I apologize when there’s no need. I dip my chin down and lift my shoulders when making a request. Isn’t the goal to get what I want, one way or another?

At a certain age though, I think many women just get tougher. They don’t have the time or the energy for the fabricated social niceties because stuff has to get done. Cutesy doesn’t quite work anymore. Also, I think that as women get older, they start to feel more and more invisible, so in order to be acknowledged, they have to make their presence known. They have to speak up so that the world will hear them. They’re the pushy women. They’re the bitches. They’re the ones who really turn the wheel.

My mom knows how to get what she wants. She has very little patience for the colleague who doesn’t return phone calls, the contractor who really didn’t fix that leak, or the server who still hasn’t brought our drinks. She’s not rude at all. She’s just…assertive. Sometimes it embarrasses me, but that’s my problem, not hers.

Still, when my mom realized her frank approach might make me uncomfortable, she felt badly. She was also confused. If you’re not getting what you want, why wouldn’t you speak up? So I asked her if she was “assertive” when she was my age. Nope. In fact, she admitted to me that her younger self just wanted to be “nice” too. She felt she needed to be nice. Nice worked.

Hmmm, sounds familiar.

Clearly, self-assurance and confidence come with age, wisdom and experience. At some point, your needs start to become way more important than how you are perceived. And, yes, I think others become more responsive to your direct attitude as well. I’ll always be nice, because nice is who I am, but I also trust that, at some point, I won’t be so shy about speaking up, claiming space, and insisting on what I want.

I look forward to the day that I can comfortably be assertive, and trust that others will be comfortable with it too.

Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.

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