Is Assertiveness Overrated?

Is today’s “I’m loud and I’m proud” demeanor really to be lauded?

Posted Jan 11, 2019

Arturo DiModica, CC 2.5
Source: Arturo DiModica, CC 2.5

Not so long ago, the ideal comportment was restrained, modest, not pushy. But recent decades have seen increased lauding of, indeed training of, assertiveness. We’re even seeing encouragement of rude aggressiveness, exemplified by such slogans as “I’m loud and I’m proud!”

From where I sit, neither of the extremes: “The meek shall inherit the earth” nor “I’m loud and I’m proud!” are defensible. The question is, “Where in that broad middle should you aim for?” It probably depends in part on your predisposition: Some people seem hard-wired for assertiveness, others for compliance and eagerness to please. But some of our level of assertiveness is under our control.

Most people exhibit their level of assertiveness unconsciously. Per some of my previous articles, for example, Work More? and Give More to The Neediest or to The Higher Potential?, I believe it wise that we make such decisions consciously, after due deliberation. To that end, here is a debate between an advocate for moderately above-average assertiveness and an advocate for more restraint. Perhaps it will help you get more clear on where you'd like to aim for on that continuum.

Pro-Assertiveness. It’s unlikely that anyone will advocate more for you than you. You have to ask for what you want. In fact, at a Harvard orientation, a speaker said, “Key to success at Harvard is to ask for what you want and when they say no, ask someone else.”

Pro-Restraint. If you push more than average, you’re likely to encounter resistance, even antipathy. For example, who likes the pushy car salesman? Or the person pushing hard to get a date to go to bed, or to marry? The reaction is usually negative. That negativity is especially likely when dealing with a Christian, the U.S.'s dominant religion, which seeps even into secular values. The New Testament, again and again, stresses not being too willful, even urging extreme passivity as in, Matthew 17:20: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."  In toto, no matter the person's religion if any, on average, understated works better.

Pro-Assertiveness. You’re ignoring that if you’re assertive, you're more in control of your existence—doing life rather than having life do you and getting buffeted with the winds and by 'taking' types of people. And study after study finds that control and autonomy are core to happiness and anxiety reduction.

Pro-Restraint. That’s true—if your assertiveness is usually well-received. Many assertive people unwittingly make unreasonable 'asks' and statements and often pay a big price. For example, I can recall someone who is overly confident in the rectitude of his proposals. In fact, he is usually misguided if not out-and-out wrong. I also recall an average performer at work who had heard that women should be more assertive in asking for a raise. She was and her boss, also a woman, was surprised because the boss perceived her as a just-average performer. Not only was the employee turned down but the boss felt that, as a result, the employee was disgruntled and had an overinflated sense of self, so when layoffs were considered, she was put on the list.

Pro-Assertiveness. You’re cherry picking. In general, assertiveness will result in getting more for yourself and for others for whom you advocate. For example, don’t you think the assertive fundraiser or lobbyist will get more for their cause?

Pro-Restraint. I’m not so sure. Again, who likes pushy salespeople? There’s one more point I want to make: Being assertive is not just risky but stressful, requiring a lot of effort for what, often, over time, yields little or no net gain, maybe a net loss. Think back to your own life. Have your greater-than-average efforts to be assertive yielded a net gain or loss? And if a gain, have those efforts caused enough of a gain to have been worth the effort and stress of being quite assertive?

The takeaway

So, in light of this debate, do you want to be any more or less assertive? In general? With a specific person or situation?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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