Assert…or defer

By Caitlin Kelly


I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything
You held me down, but I got up (hey!)
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, your hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake your ground
You held me down, but I got up
Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough
I see it all, I see it now
— “Roar”, Katy Perry
If 2017 taught women anything, it was this…
It’s time to assert ourselves and stop deferring to the toxic bullying and sexual harassment of sooooooo many men.
But it’s also an ongoing personal/individual challenge and one that never gets easier, no matter how loudly we roar — I still remember Helen Reddy’s second-wave feminism anthem, “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”…
That was in 1971.

The sad truth is, when women roar — even whimper — we’re too often dismissed, laughed at, overlooked, ignored.

By women and men alike, people who cling to power and are scared to lose it.
We’re told to “pipe down”.
That we’re “over-reacting.”
It’s also deeply cultural, how at ease we feel (or not) asserting ourselves and our needs — whether the honeyed silk-sheathed steel of “Bless your heart” from a Southern American woman to the “Fuck you!” of a ballsy New Yorker. (Neither one of which might win us what we want, by the way.)
I was struck by a friend’s experience boarding a plane to claim the seat for which she’d paid extra — to be confronted by some guy traveling with his large family who preferred (!) to take her seat so they could all sit together.
Excuse me?
My friend chose to defer, and it was interesting to see how differently her friends reacted. Some of us would have told the guy “Not a chance. Move!” and others would have “kept the peace” by allowing him to usurp her spot.
Because when women don’t defer, it can get ugly, even violent.
So we often opt to defer, not because we want to or because we agree with you or because we think it smart or powerful — but because we’re scared of what will happen if we don’t.
It’s a perpetual and not-fun seesaw of being polite (or a doormat?), or being assertive (or perceived as a bitch?) and one that is never going to be perceived the same way by the next person we encounter. That alone makes for exhausting calculations.
I grew up in a family where my deference — like yours, possibly — was expected, taken for granted. I remember little to no negotiation, so I learned that many of my needs were less than.
That’s a deeply female experience.
And yet I was taught, outside the family, to boldly assert myself intellectually and athletically — like a man, really.
Being Canadian by birth and upbringing confuses this further for me, as it’s a culture more attuned to the collective good than the individual-focused U.S., and certainly elbows-out New York City.
How about you?

How do you balance being assertive and deferential?

18 thoughts on “Assert…or defer

  1. Fatima

    Still trying to balance both. Right now, it’s an unlearning process after years of deferring all the time. Sadly, I dealt with a woman claiming all this harassment is just women wanting attention. I provided the counterpoint and she froze me out me out for the rest of the day. (She was my co-worker and one trying to hang on to her power.)

    1. It’s difficult! I think it’s especially challenging — as you’ve just seen — for women. We’re trained to be “nice” to “go along to get along” which values conformity over (even polite) differences of opinion.

      Whenever someone uses the word “just” that’s your first clue they’re too heavily invested in their POV…:-)

  2. Being scared of what will happen if we don’t. Spot on, Caitlyn. There was no negotiation when I was growing up either. For the most part, I was told. If I wasn’t told, there was an ulterior motive. That left me behind, particularly from the perspective of how Canadian society works. (Although Canadians punish your infractions through shunning).

    Unfortunately, many men (and some women) think they understand or that there really isn’t an issue, and they’re the worst to deal with.

    1. Yes, that family thing sounds familiar. 🙂

      Canadians are very good at passive aggression — the un-returned phone call or email, even when they’ve first approached you! The aversion to conflict can be bizarre.

      It’s one of the reasons I work better in the U.S.and in bossyboots NYC. 🙂

      People who have no idea…have NO IDEA. Best to ignore/outwit/out-strategize whenever possible.

      1. Fatima

        I think it’s part of the reason I loved bossyboots NYC. I had needs yet the Canadian side of me expressed them with please or thank you. It was great to get to a point.

  3. The thing I am working through is how to discuss this issue with our men friends. Because my husband and I have friends of all ages, it is a conversation that we are introducing when together. Not surprising older friends seem to be on the defensive pretty quickly where our younger friends seem to be somewhat bewildered by all this.
    It is an ongoing conversation we all need to have – with so much conditioning on all our parts – it will be a slow process but how wonderful to be able to have ‘back-up’ from other women now. That has not always been the case!

    1. It’s interesting to hear this…as I see (?!) tremendous anxiety about speaking up in their favor among younger women (maybe only writers?!) in the online groups I participate in, and these are inter-generational.

      I also hear young professional journalists say: ‘I’m scared to use the phone” which is as absurd as a surgeon being afraid to use a scalpel. It’s a basic tool of my/our profession.

      But…where is this crazy fear coming from? I assume, the usual, both physical fear (a young freelancer killed and dismembered on assignment in 2017) and economic.

      Until or unless women have more economic power to flee abusive situations, (personal and professional) deference will win.

      That’s why journalists are taught to keep a “fuck you fund”…although not sure how many can and do.

  4. Oh, give me a break. I’m not scared, I don’t give a crap what other people think, and I’m not deferential. And I wasn’t “trained” to be nice or not nice. I was taught manners and courtesy, of course, but, more importantly, I was brought up to be me. I come from a family of strong-minded, confident individuals who just went about their business speaking frankly and forthrightly.

    I don’t see how you can paint an entire nation with the same brush. (“Canadians are very good at passive aggression.”) Canadians are many things, just like any other nationality.

    “So we often opt to defer, not because we want to or because we agree with you or because we think it smart or powerful — but because we’re scared of what will happen if we don’t.” Sorry, but I see that as wimpish (and a cop-out).

    I’ll tell you what not deferring and speaking your mind brings you: respect!

    1. Having met you personally, I will say you are probably one of the most forthright women I have ever met — and I have met 1000s in my lifetime, socially and professionally. Many many many women do NOT have your self-confidence and independence.

      Canadians HATE conflict and tend to avoid it, which affects all relationships. French people (as you know) tend to see this differently; yes, both are generalizations but have some truth in them.

      I’m astonished you can’t empathize with women who ARE very scared of the repercussions of standing up for themselves. If you have never once been scared of speaking out, socially or professionally, you are a rare female. Even the boldest women I know have held their tongue at times, even reluctantly.

    1. I think it can be a life-long struggle for some people….and none at all for others!

      Good for you!!

      I’ve never been scared to speak up on behalf of others, esp. in my journalism work but have bitten my tongue bloody within my family. Hard habits to change.

  5. I now follow my gut. And if I can keep the emotion out of it, standing my ground firmly, it usually works. I hope–regardless of gender–we begin to become more enlightened as a society. To treat each other with respect and thoughtfulness simply because it’s the right way to be a real human.

      1. right?!

        I come from a family that prized a lot of emotion, expressed quickly and reactively. Not helpful. Fencing taught me a great deal that had little to do with athletics, per se, and more about self-control and confidence.

  6. I appreciate your good answer, Caitlin.

    Here’s how I view the situation: the major reason bullies and assholes continue to be bullies and assholes is because they get away with it. No-one challenges them. No-one stands up and says, “Hey! What the f— do you think you’re doing? That’s just plain WRONG, you know it’s WRONG, and I’m going to call you out!”

    In French, I would say (and I have said, loudly), “ça suffit !!” (Enough!”)

    Somebody has to challenge these people, and I guess oftentimes it’s me because — OK, I was born with confidence and a big mouth — but more importantly because I cannot tolerate injustice, abuse of power, and just plain assholeness.

    If I see someone who has been a victim of wrongdoing or assholery, but who is scared of speaking out, then I’ll do it for them (even though I’d prefer they do it themselves.) And that’s my wish: that men and women take charge, become more vocal and confrontational, and assume responsibility for their lives! Otherwise, you’re just a pawn in someone else’s game.

    To say that many people do not have self-confidence and independence … I dunno, it’s too easy to say that. I see that as an excuse. It’s our responsibility to develop self-confidence and independence.

    1. I have a similar momma bear reaction (having been bullied many times myself) and I’ve sucked it up in a few NYC journalism jobs because I had bills to pay and no back-up. That’s why so many people tolerate bullshit — they need the money!

      So ideally we’d all have sufficient savings to say “eff you!” whenever necessary…but I’ve also seen this play out within family and social situations where shutting up to “keep the peace” means a life without constant confrontation and conflict.

      In an ideal world, yes, everyone would stand up and speak out. I wish they would, too.

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