I am assertive. I am also a nice guy.
You are assertive. But are you a nice woman? Or a nasty one?
In our gendered culture, niceness is a double-edged sword. It can be a fawning compliment or a searing denunciation.
As your eyes crinkle in confusion, let me explain.
For men, it is socially acceptable to be assertive — even demanding. From Trump’s pugnacious campaign to head coach Frank Martin’s icy glare, there is a societal expectation — perhaps embrace — of the emphatic man. I can disagree — even vehemently — without violating gender norms. Sure, I may be hard-headed, stubborn, and argumentative, but I am also reaffirming my masculinity.
For women, the balance between niceness and assertiveness is different — and difficult. As in bullseye difficult.
Pandering to outdated gender stereotypes, we equate niceness with pleasantness — even cheerfulness. For women, niceness equates to deference — even passivity. And within these antiquated, although entrenched, gender norms we form indelible judgments about socially acceptable behavior.
Let’s take my beloved mother. My mother was tougher than a two-day old cookie. She was assertive, demanding, and compassionate. Within her career, she ascended into leadership positions. Quickly. But because of her candor, she faced resistance — some justified; most unwarranted. And, not surprisingly, silver-haired males were the ones most resentful of my strong-willed mother. For them, her assertiveness clashed with their idealized woman: agreeable, deferential, and, yes, controllable.
Let’s take a more prominent example: Hillary Clinton. A polarizing figure, Hillary has struggled to balance likability and toughness throughout her political career. According to detractors — and even some fellow Democrats, her public persona is cold and calculating. When asked whether Hillary connected with voters, President Obama cooly responded, “Hillary is likable enough.” During the 2016 campaign, President Trump infamously disparaged her as a “nasty woman.”
Hillary’s assertiveness is a cultural flashpoint, illuminating our country’s gender cleavages Sure, you and I wanted Hillary to be likable — more maternal and empathetic. When she humanized herself (who can forget her tearful campaign stop in New Hampshire?), she appeared vulnerable, human, and — yes — likable. But why must Hillary — or other assertive women like my mother — pass the likability threshold? Has Time or The Washington Post run screaming headlines about Trump’s likability? Are we awaiting Trump’s Muskie moment? There is an element of hypocrisy in our willing embrace of a tearful Hillary — and cool dismissal of her and other strong-willed women when they deviate from our readymade gender expectations.
It is time to modernize our niceness definition. Niceness is more than passively agreeing; it is sticking up for what you believe in a firm and, yes, forceful manner. It is thoughtfulness combined with, at times, uncomfortable assertiveness. Being a nice woman does require a little bit of nasty.
Even if the Donald — or my mother’s silver-haired colleagues — disagree.