Assertiveness: just say no

This month a feminist classic was reissued: Anne Dickson’s A Woman In Your Own Right, first published in 1982. Back in the 1980s virtually every feminist I knew owned a copy; I can still visualise the shiny silver cover. The 40th anniversary edition looks different, with a sunshine yellow cover and a new subtitle (the original one, ‘Assertiveness and You’, has been replaced by ‘The Art of Assertive, Clear and Honest Communication’). The content has also been updated: it’s not being presented as a historical document, but as still-relevant, practical advice.

Is it still relevant? As Dickson says in her new introduction,

It is tempting to believe that the world has changed to such an extent that women no longer have need of the guidance and support this book originally set out to offer.

She goes on to point out that while some things have changed for some women, many basic inequalities have persisted. Women are still expected to do the lion’s share of the unpaid care-work, and they still contend with high levels of sexual and domestic violence. She also cites some newer problems, like the explosion of online bullying and abuse.

No feminist disputes the argument that we still live in an unequal world. But is assertiveness a solution to the problems Dickson mentions? Personally, I have my doubts: as regular readers will know, I’m critical of the idea that the way women communicate is, if not the root cause of their subordinate position, then at least an important contributory factor. I think the assumptions behind communication training for women are linguistically and politically naïve, and there’s little if any evidence that interventions based on them are effective.

In that case, you might ask, why have those interventions been so popular for so long? A cynical answer might be that, like the equally ineffective products of the diet industry, they are lucrative. Training is a profitable business, and AFAIK it’s unregulated: anyone can market their services as a trainer, coach or ‘communication consultant’. Anne Dickson, to be fair, does have expert credentials: she’s not in the same category as the hacks and grifters I’ve criticised in the past. Her model of assertiveness is internally coherent, and there’s more to her advice than the usual finger-wagging bullshit. But that’s exactly why the 40th anniversary of her best-known work seems like a good moment to revisit the reasons why—even at its best—I find this approach misguided.

Assertiveness training (AT) is now quite strongly associated with feminism, but it wasn’t invented by feminists. It originated in the late 1940s as a form of behaviour therapy for people whose dysfunctional behaviour was linked, in the opinion of those treating them, to ‘poor communication skills’. In some cases the problem it was meant to address was the extreme passivity caused by severe depression or long-term institutionalisation; it was also used with drug addicts, teen mothers and homosexuals, whose ‘deviant’ lifestyles were thought to result from low self-esteem and/or inability to resist peer pressure. In other cases the presenting problem was not passivity but its opposite, aggression. AT was used to teach people (including sex offenders and domestic abusers) to verbalise feelings of anger rather than resorting to physical violence.

Trainees were taught a set of guiding principles which emphasised that (a) everyone has the right to their needs and feelings, while at the same time (b) everyone has the obligation to respect the right of others to their needs and feelings. These principles were said to require the adoption of a style of speech which was clear, direct and honest rather than passive, aggressive or manipulative. The strategies taught in AT included using ‘I’ statements, making requests directly without hinting or hedging, and refusing unwanted invitations or unreasonable requests by ‘just saying no’.  

In the early 1970s, American second wave feminists took AT out of the clinic and into the small, self-organised women’s groups which formed the backbone of the Women’s Liberation Movement. These were women who’d grown up in the 1950s, the era of what Betty Friedan called ‘the feminine mystique’; they turned to AT to help them unlearn their ingrained habits of passivity and subservience. In Britain, similarly, Anne Dickson recalls that the women she worked with early on in her career ‘could immediately identify with passive and indirect behaviours, and could readily understand how this put them at a disadvantage’.

Today Dickson thinks women have less of a problem with passivity, but it troubles her that assertiveness has been popularly conflated with aggression. She complains that the phrase ‘an assertive woman’ conjures up a picture of someone ‘authoritarian, domineering and overbearing’, who ‘gets what she wants by any means available to her’ and uses feminism as an excuse for expressing ‘hostility and intolerance, to men especially’. This is not, Dickson insists, what assertiveness means. It ‘teaches us how to maintain directness and clarity and remain authoritative while at the same time avoiding aggression’ (her emphasis).

These remarks underline Dickson’s continued allegiance to the original model of assertiveness, in which aggression was as much of a problem as passivity, but they also illustrate the limitations of the philosophy behind that model (which, to the extent it has any political content, might be described as ‘wishy-washy liberal’). From a feminist perspective the equation of female assertiveness with aggression is a predictable consequence of sexism and misogyny. Any attempt by a woman to assert her rights or her authority directly, and any refusal on her part to defer to others’ wishes, is liable to be construed as illegitimate and hostile—in short, as an aggressive act, which may then provoke a backlash.  

This is implicitly acknowledged in some of the academic literature on assertiveness. Back in the 1990s, when I was researching AT for my book Verbal Hygiene, one of the texts I read included a discussion of a course developed for women in Puerto Rico, where the designers had decided not to include the topic of saying no to your male partner. In Puerto Rico, they explained, the submission of wives to husbands was ‘a relatively intransigent cultural norm’: encouraging women to say no to their husbands would be neither effective nor ‘socially valid’, and it could put the women at risk of violence. This surely underlines the point that AT is not politically radical. It’s not about challenging the prevailing social order, it’s about helping individuals function more effectively within it.

The main tool AT employs for that purpose is a set of rules for using language, which are meant to help trainees achieve the ideal of ‘clear, direct and honest communication’. In the abstract this seems unobjectionable: no one is in favour of obscure, confusing and dishonest communication. But if you delve into the details of what AT means by ‘clear, direct and honest’, you soon discover that the recommended speech-style is linguistically unnatural and socially unrealistic–and as such, unlikely to make communication more effective.

One problem with AT’s advice is its assumption that every speaker in every situation has the same freedom to choose to be ‘direct and honest’, and that what stops many women from making that choice is simply their own lack of confidence or self-belief. In reality, of course, there are other constraints which have more to do with the social context than with individual psychology. Many of the contexts in which women are told they should assert themselves involve power inequalities: standing up to a bullying boss, or a violent husband, may have consequences they are (understandably) unwilling to risk. It’s not a good idea to ‘just say no’ to someone who may take that as a provocation and respond with physical violence.

In fact, empirical research has shown that even in non-threatening situations English-speakers very rarely perform refusals by ‘just saying no’ without apology or explanation. A bald ‘no’ may be clear and direct, but it will also be heard as rude and hostile. But AT handbooks have a tendency to dismiss linguistic markers of politeness as mere ‘padding’, detracting from the clarity of the message without adding any extra information. The point this misses is that communicating isn’t just about exchanging information, it’s also about negotiating the relationship between participants. Politeness plays a crucial role in establishing the necessary level of co-operation and mutual respect. Eliminating it will undoubtedly influence the way your interlocutors perceive you—but not usually in a positive way.    

There’s a good illustration of this in the original AWIYOR: if you’re in a café and you find your cup hasn’t been washed properly you should say to the server, ‘I’d like you to change this for a clean cup’. This is textbook assertiveness: a clear, direct, first-person statement of what the speaker wants, with no superfluous ‘padding’ (like, say, ‘sorry, but could you change this for a clean cup please?’). It’s also brusque to the point of rudeness, making the speaker sound overbearing and self-absorbed.

That’s not just my opinion. Psychologists have done experiments where subjects watched videotapes of people communicating in ‘assertive’ and ‘unassertive’ ways and then rated each speaker for qualities like competence, likeability and aggression. ‘Assertive’ speakers are often judged to be aggressive, rude and unlikeable. And while that’s true for speakers of both sexes, you won’t be surprised to hear that the effect is stronger for women. Because women are expected to be kind and self-effacing, any female behaviour that deviates from that norm attracts more disapproval than the same behaviour in men.  

For me this is the core of the problem with communication training for women. Even when the advice itself isn’t stupid, it doesn’t acknowledge what both research and experience consistently show—that women are judged by a double standard and caught in a double bind. If they conform to gendered expectations they’ll be criticised as weak and ineffectual, while if they flout those expectations they’ll be damned as ‘abrasive’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident‘.

This casts doubt on the assumption the whole enterprise is based on: that women are held back in life by the way they communicate, and the remedy is for them to change their behaviour. But if the new, ‘improved’ behaviour is not acceptable either–it just attracts a different set of criticisms–that might suggest that women’s speech was never the real problem. What really holds women back is systemic sexism: the negative judgments made on their speech are just expressions of that deeper prejudice.

So where does that leave A Woman In Your Own Right? I’ve read a lot of self-help books and training manuals in my time, and as I said earlier, I regard AWIYOR as one of the better ones. Even if I think some of the advice is linguistically misguided, it would be hard to argue that it’s actively harmful.

Considered as an institution, however, I do think assertiveness training—and communication training more generally—has done more harm than good over the last 40 years. Some examples are worse than others, but they all recycle and reinforce the belief that women as a group have a communication problem, and that this is an important reason why they are (still) not equal to men. They’re underpaid because they don’t feel comfortable asking directly for more money. They’re overworked because they can’t say no. They’re overlooked because they don’t speak up, or else they hedge and waffle and don’t protest when they’re interrupted.

This argument is not supported by good evidence, and our continuing receptiveness to it distracts attention from the deeper causes of inequality. It also obscures the nature of the problems women do have with language and communication, which have more to do with a combination of men’s behaviour and widely-held sexist attitudes than with women lacking the confidence to speak or using language that stops people taking them seriously.

So, with all due respect to Anne Dickson, I am not inclined to celebrate the anniversary of A Woman In Your Own Right. To be honest (not forgetting clear and direct), I find its longevity depressing. There was a time when I thought this whole genre was on its way out, but it managed to hang on, and in the last decade it’s produced a new crop of popular texts with titles like The Confidence Code and Girl, Stop Apologizing.

These recent books are part of the rise of what the feminist media scholars Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill call ‘confidence culture’, a depoliticised form of feminism which, in their words, ‘exculpate[s] social structures and institutions from responsibility for gender injustice, laying it squarely at women’s door’. Rather than exhorting women to demand their rights and improve their material conditions through collective political struggle, it calls on them to empower themselves by improving themselves. As A Woman In Your Own Right demonstrates, this is not a new idea. It wasn’t the solution to our problems forty years ago, and it isn’t the solution to them now.

Cartoon by Angela Martin, 1994