Women, Conflict and Mixed Messages
We look to men to lead us into battle and women to heal the wounded.
Posted October 12, 2018
Do any of these sound familiar:
- Office mom: taking care of others
- Joan of Arc: sacrificing for others or taking a back seat
- Damsel in distress: waiting to be saved
- Quite Mouse: you are seen but not heard
Engaging in conflict is perceived as unfeminine. It requires a great deal of assertiveness, which may include rocking the boat. A woman’s role is to be the peacemaker, master negotiator, placater, office mom and smoother of all ripples of conflict at work and home. Girls received the message early: Sugar and Spice and everything nice are the ingredients from which they are made! When a woman expresses anger she is questioned. Is this outburst hormonally driven? Is she being emotional? For men expressions of anger are sanctioned. In fact, it is one of the few emotions men can express publicly. We look to men to lead us into battle and women to heal the wounded and minimize the fatalities.
We have approximately three decades of psychological research that tells us women have higher rates of depression than men. The operational definition of depression is anger turned inward. Women suppress their anger and men express it. She can take the anger out on herself by feeling guilty, depressed and self-doubting. The cost is high and the taboo too great for her to show anger.
Women often exhibit more indirect ways of expressing their anger like passive-aggressive behavior. She will not get mad at you directly but indirectly. Passive aggressive behavior may appear innocent on the surface (convenient misunderstanding, forgetting, being tardy) but underneath the behavior, a rage flows. Audrey was addressing a group of women support staff of a Fortune 50 company for “Secretaries Day” and asked them how they handled anger toward their bosses. One woman reported she was angered at her boss’s orders, especially to get him a cup of coffee. So she just spit in it before she gave it to him. While the audience collectively gasped she exclaimed it took care of all her anger toward his demeaning orders. She could not directly address the issue with him but took care of it indirectly.
Anger is an important signal in conflict that cannot be ignored. Anger can signal someone crossing a boundary, frustration when things are not right and most importantly, anger can maintain the integrity of our self. Harriet Lerner, a psychotherapist at the Menninger Foundation explains the difficulties women have expressing anger. She also addresses the sex difference:
Women who openly express anger at men are especially suspect…we all know that ‘those angry women’ turn everybody off. Unlike our heroes, who fight and even die for what they believe in… The direct expression of anger, especially at men, makes us unladylike, unfeminine, unmaternal, and sexually unattractive…They are devoid of femininity.
One of the greatest challenges in conflict is allowing the productive expression of anger. Women may have to be coached or given permission that it is “safe” to express anger without jeopardizing her femininity.
Take the case of Karen, the 32-year-old director of advertising at a mid-sized apparel company. I observed her and her team when I consulted at one of its monthly staff meetings. When it was Karen’s turn to speak, the vice president of her division turned to her and asked, “How are you doing?”
“Not all that well,” she replied gravely. “It took six months for me to finally get my raise—the one that was retroactive to January 1. I couldn’t believe how much bureaucratic garbage I had to go through.” As she shared the gory details, the rest of the staff nodded supportively.
“That’s awful,” one of her colleagues said.
“What a pain,” chimed in another.
Even the vice president was taken aback. “They should never have put you through all that,” he said, shaking his head.
Then, just as Karen was about to finish her tale of woe, she flashed a quick smile. As if on cue, the men in the room shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. They looked perplexed.
- What did that smile mean? Was Karen really as upset as she said she was?
- Could they take her complaints seriously?
- Would the V.P. feel compelled to follow up on her grievance, now that she seemed to discount it so handily?
- What could Karen have done differently?
Karen’s face contradicted her words. Indeed, that seemingly innocuous smile undermined her compelling verbal expressions of frustration and distress. No wonder her male colleagues seemed puzzled; Karen had shot herself in the foot with her female nonverbal style. Unfortunately, women often subvert their own credibility by these kinds of conflicting messages. And Karen’s obvious lack of consciousness about what she had just done would most likely come back to haunt her later in her career.
Karen did what a lot of women do in conflict; they send conflicting messages, saying one thing and doing something else nonverbally. This is confusing and sends mixed messages eroding her credibility. Women often use nonverbals, especially the smile, to soften the blunt force of a conflict. She cannot jeopardize her femininity and she feels the need to get over her anger like she has the flu. Women are not supposed to rock the boat; they are supposed to be the master negotiator and serve as a peacemaker.