Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

Misunderstandings of Aggression

In my childhood, most boys learned to settle their differences with fists, and this led to settling differences with debate. Most girls were punished for using fists (“unladylike”), and this led to settling differences with backbiting, moralizing, and cutting remarks. Especially moralizing. Read More

Assertiveness vs. Aggressiveness

I agree that much of the difference between assertiveness and hostility is the "preparation of the audience," but I generally disagree with your second point.

"If we are comfortable with our aggression, we are more likely to engage bad employees in a dialogue of frustration, to hear their own frustrations, and to find a solution." That depends on how you define "comfortable" and "aggression". The definitions of "aggression" I found all include elements of violence and destructive behaviour. So if a person is sufficiently "comfortable" with aggression, then they probably wouldn't just "engage bad employees in a dialogue," but rather abuse them (e.g. physically, emotionally, etc.) In fact, I would argue that those who are not very comfortable with aggression are the ones who are more likely to engage bad employees in dialogue. Hockey fighters are pretty comfortable with aggression, do they engage in dialogue to hear each other's frustrations?

"In my childhood, most boys learned to settle their differences with fists, and this led to settling differences with debate. Most girls were punished for using fists ('unladylike'), and this led to settling differences with backbiting, moralizing, and cutting remarks." In my childhood, the boys no longer settled differences with their fists. I acknowledge that's not true everywhere, but I have to say that whatever "backbiting, moralizing, and cutting remarks" there were, they weren't emotionally scarring. It was all in good fun amongst the boys. So I still don't see the need for fisticuffs.

"By the way, Webster’s also includes 'healthy self-assertiveness or a drive to mastery or accomplishment' in its definitions of aggression. And its definition of assertive ends, 'syn see aggressive.'" I'm not sure exactly which dictionary you used, but there are many online sources that distinguish between "assertiveness" and "aggressiveness". In fact, Lynn Taylor had a Psychology Today blog post about this on May 4, 2013 on this distinction. My understanding has always been that assertiveness considers the "views of others," while aggression does not.

Assertive and aggressive

I know how committed some psychologists are to distinguishing assertiveness from aggression. My point is that it is a distinction that is at best incorrect and at worst fosters discomfort with aggression of the sort that leads to violence and passive-aggression. In my view, assertiveness, hostility, courage, and violence are all forms of aggression.

I'm using Webster's Third Unabridged, but it doesn't really matter what the dictionary says. My point is that much good can come from understanding the commonalities between violence and assertiveness, a commonality that I, following traditions in psychology, call aggression.

Assertiveness and Aggression

I think I understand what you're saying, but I'm still reluctant to accept the idea of "comfort with aggression". I can understand that excessive discomfort with aggression can lead to violence, but so too can excessive comfort with aggression.

Judging by your explanation, it still seems to me that you're distinguishing aggression from assertiveness, just in a different way. By saying that "assertiveness, hostility, courage, and violence are all forms of aggression," you're effectively saying that they're not necessarily identical to "aggression," but that they're representations or manifestations of it. Furthermore, you acknowledged that there are "commonalities between violence and assertiveness;" a commonality you call "aggression." That implies that not only are "violence" and "assertiveness" different, but they do not bear all characteristics of "aggression," which makes it a distinct concept. So how is a distinction between assertiveness and aggression "at best incorrect"?

Distinctions

Most of the people I've met who claim that assertiveness is not aggressive, in my opinion, are demonizing aggression. I see the relationship between aggression and assertiveness (no, they are not identical; as you note, one is a form of the other) as being analogous to the relationship between romance and sex. Aggression and sex aren't bad, but sometimes they are mismanaged.

Not all violence, of course, is bad, and if we demonize violence (or "aggression"), we may not be able to act violently when we might want to. I used to assign graduate students the task of writing a paper about a time in which they were violent and proud of it. It wasn't difficult for them to think of examples.

Demonizing Violence

"if we demonize violence (or "aggression"), we may not be able to act violently when we might want to."

Is that really such a great concern in this day and age? It's as you said in the blog post: "the only difference between assertiveness and hostility is the preparation of the audience." It seems to me the media (e.g. movies, TV shows, video games, news, etc.) is very good at that balancing act. "Antagonists" might be demonized for their violence and hostility, but "protagonists" are celebrated for their assertiveness and courage even though (by your definition) all four share commonalities with aggression.

Excellent you hit the nail on

Excellent you hit the nail on the head in this one. All should read and master its contents.

"In my childhood, most boys

"In my childhood, most boys learned to settle their differences with fists, and this led to settling differences with debate. Most girls were punished for using fists (“unladylike”), and this led to settling differences with backbiting, moralizing, and cutting remarks. Especially moralizing".

Settling differences with fists is violence, not assertiveness. If males in general settled differences with debate alone, maybe you would have a point (and maybe the world would be a more peaceful place).

Debate inherently involves moralizing, so perhaps it's girls are more assertive and courageous in that they skip the pointless step of mindless, irrational violence and get straight to the point of resolving problems. Backbiting and cutting remarks are not gender specific characteristics. For example, I detect an underlying passive-agression towards the female sex in this very article.

Sorry you took it that way

It's hard to write clear prose, try as I might. My point was not that boys debate and girls backbite; my point was that punishment of hostility leads to poor management of aggression, and in many societies, such as the one I grew up in, girls were much more likely than boys to be punished for expressing any form of aggression, whether as violence, autonomy, noisiness, or assertiveness. Men were celebrated for standing tall, while women were celebrated for sitting pretty, and it is easy to see in retrospect where each group learned their strategies.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

more...

Subscribe to Feeling Our Way

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.