The Right Way to Rock the Boat

Once upon a time, being assertive meant asking for trouble; today, you most likely need to stop worrying what the neighbors think.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on May 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

For two decades, Charles Darwin suffered crippling anxiety whenever he so much as imagined publishing his theory of natural selection. The quiet naturalist agonized about how his true beliefs on speciation would affect his standing among his Victorian peers and super pious wife: "It is like confessing a murder," he wrote to a friend. Only when the young scientist Alfred Russel Wallace nipped at his heels with a nearly identical theory did Darwin set aside his work on barnacles and publish On the Origin of Species, securing his place in history with the slenderest of leads.

The greatest thinker of the 19th century came close to being remembered as a footnote in the study of arthropods, solely because he feared disapproval. Like us, he was designed to skirt the danger that is social scorn. Public scorn has risks, but we greatly exaggerate them. Fear of others' judgments is a necessary human adaptation, but it is a clumsy and imprecise mechanism. That's why we worry so much about risking the boss's wrath in requesting a promotion, defying dad by forsaking the family business or breaking with our colleagues by publishing a paradigm-shifting theory of evolution.

We avoid conflicts and are hyperconscious of other people's opinions of us, especially people we deem important. We like those who like us. Problem is, we go overboard and freak out if we make an inappropriate remark or otherwise jeopardize our status. We all worry about others' approval, regardless of our place on the food chain: Abraham Lincoln's antidote was to accept that he could never get more than middling approval no matter what he chose to do.

Every social encounter is a subtle dance of dominance and submission. Asking someone to clarify a remark, taking your time to answer a question, suggesting a date—or saying no to one—require an intuitive understanding of the dance steps. Assertiveness is taking the lead. Chances are, even the most forward among us err on the side of submission. (After all, outlaws commit crimes in only a fraction of the instances where a crime is possible!) So unassertiveness becomes, for many of us, the default. Implicit self-instructions like, "when in doubt, shut up and go along," sometimes keep you, and kept your ancestors, out of trouble. But you want to thrive, not just survive.

Today, we have a luxury most humans never had. We can pursue more than just survival and reproduction—we now search for meaning, contentment and fulfillment. In theory, we know we're free agents, but when we tie ourselves in knots about how to tell the in-laws not to overfeed the baby or agonize about requesting a raise, we're really grappling with a Neanderthink siren call: Sit tight and don't rock the boat.

Being in lockstep with the family or tribe made sense for our forebears. Human prehistory likely exposed our ancestors to only a couple hundred people in the course of their lifetime. On some level, everyone's opinion did matter. Timidity didn't make our ancestors happy, but it helped them to avoid murderous conflict, especially when dealing with strangers.

In a world with written laws and police (not to mention the option to relocate, find another job or remarry), we needn't be hypercautious about every social encounter. But most of us are still saddled with this brand of Neanderthink—an overly developed concern for how we're perceived by everyone. In fact, most people are pretty preoccupied worrying about what you think of them. We have less power over others' opinions than we think, so we might as well discount them if possible. When the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was hunkered down at Los Alamos, his ailing wife, Arlene, sent him personalized pencils inscribed, "Richard Darling, I love you! Putsy." When she found out that he didn't use them because his famous colleagues might laugh, a stunned Arlene asked, "What do you care what other people think?" Her words became his assertiveness maxim—and the title of one of his books.

Being assertive does not mean you must always get your way or proudly flout social norms. The golden mean of assertiveness resides between the extremes of passivity and aggression. Straightforward communication always beats cowering or commandeering.

Try monitoring the social risks you avoid, and note the times when you act either passively or angrily. Then look for the assertive alternative. Push yourself to act assertively even if it feels alien and uncomfortable at first. For your ancestors, conditions were often either "safe or sorry." Today, you'll be sorry if you're too safe.

Assertiveness Without Agony

  • Identify your Neanderthink tendency to conform to social norms.
  • Learn to tolerate the discomfort of doing what you think is right even if you feel great emotional pressure to conform.
  • Make clear statements about what you prefer.
  • Take your time when answering questions put to you.
  • Refuse the extremes of passivity or aggression; assertiveness differs from aggression in that you can make your preferences clear without demanding that others accede to them.
  • Practice making requests and refusals as well as letting others know your positive thoughts and feedback.
  • Accept other people's right to refuse your requests.

Forward Or Frozen?

Assess your level of self-assurance by answering "true" or "false" to the following questions.

  1. I feel free to compliment someone on a positive quality I admire.
  2. When someone cuts in front of me in line, I can calmly say that I was there first.
  3. I seethe when a salesman or waiter gives me noticeably less attention than other customers.
  4. My coworker owes me $20 from the last office party, but I avoid bringing it up.
  5. I can express my thoughts even when I know someone in the room disagrees.
  6. In conversations, I always talk much less than others.
  7. I can end a phone conversation when I want.
  8. I replay social encounters in my head and worry about my actions.
  9. I can initiate contact with someone I don't know.
  10. I frequently feel like saying, "Screw you!"

Score: The self-assured responses are 1T, 2T, 3F, 4F, 5T, 6F, 7T, 8F, 9T, 10F

If you scored 8 or more of the above responses, consider yourself assertive.